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K-16 Collaborations 2007

Paul Grobstein's picture

Minisymposium 2007 on K-16 Collaborations


Friday, 27 July 2007
8:30 am to 1 pm

Bryn Mawr College
Benham Gateway Building

Updated with links to meeting materials (see archive for original announcement) and continuing forum discussion


One of a series of half day conversation among K12 and college/university educators about how to work together to assure better education for all students at all educational levels, with particular reference to science and mathematics.


  • What is "inquiry education"?
  • Is it a a method or an objective?
  • Is it good for all students or only some?
  • Is it good for all teachers or only some?

Open to all interested K-12 teachers, college faculty, students.

Background readings:

Session 1

Session 2

  • Should inquiry learning replace traditional methods in all classrooms at all levels? Why or why not? - small group reports

Participant List

Photo gallery

To bring together K-12 and college/university educators to discuss ways that they can better work together to create optimal learning environments for all students at all levels of the the educational system, with particular reference to assuring effective education with science and mathematics.

Though often regarded and treated as separate activities, K-12 and college/university/graduate education are fundamentally and intricately interdependent. Those engaged in college/university/graduate education are themselves the products of K-12 education and K-12 educators are in turn the products of college/university/graduate education. The reciprocal relationships make it hard to imagine meaningful educational innovation without effective exchange of ideas and aspirations between K-12 and college/university/graduate educators.

Given their professional experiences, together with their experiences both as undergraduates and as students in education and other graduate programs, K-12 educators have a particularly advantageous perspective from which to make suggestions about how to improve both K-12 and college/university education. At the same time, college/university/graduate faculty have distinctive perspectives and resources that can be beneficial to K-12 educators. What is needed is greater conversation between the two groups, predicated on the presumption that such exchange is very much in the best interests of both, as well as of more effective experiences at all levels of the educational system.

For earlier conversations in this series see

Additional relevant materials on Serendip

Comments and announcements relevant to the minisymposium and K-16 collaborations generally are welcome in the public forum below. Submissions will be screened to prevent spam postings and so may be delayed in appearing.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Some further thoughts on inquiry ...

I'm delighted to see that I'm not the only one for whom our session a week and a half ago was a stimulus for further thinking about "inquiry" education. Ian and Wil have laid out some important issues, and, like Dora, I too think it would be "nice to put our efforts together and row in the same direction and go somewhere".

What strikes me, thinking back on our session, are three things:

  1. how much consensus we had about the down sides of traditional educational practices and the potential upsides of "inquiry education" (see "school" vs "inquiry education" as recorded at the start of our meeting)
  2. how much commonality we had about what "inquiry education" means (see the first set of small group reports from our meeting)
  3. our general reluctance, despite the first two points, to grant even close to a wholesale endorsement of inquiry education (see the second set of small group reports from our meeting)

The latter, it seemed to me, reflects not so much a professional concern about the value of an inquiry approach as a set of concerns about how well inquiry education would prepare our students to live in the real world and about what others would think of us if we seriously adopted it. The more I think about it, the more important inquiry education seems to me for our students, all of them. "Traditional" education has no great track record in the "social justice" realm; indeed I think one could make an argument that it has been a clear contributor, intentionally or unintentionally, to creating a culture in which some are privileged and others not so. The way out of this, it seems to me, is somewhere along the path of teaching everyone to think for themselves, to inquire. I don't see getting into Bryn Mawr or Haverford (or other forms of "climbing the social ladder") as an essential route to meaningful success (it may even, in some cases, be a hindrance); I do see acquiring the wherewithal to conceive and pursue one's one distinctive objectives (at all levels of the educational system) as a more promising path.

As for concerns about what others will think of us, there is, it seems to me, a clear choice. We can either follow our own sense of what makes sense, both for our students and ourselves, or resign ourselves to following "scripts" laid out by others. The latter won't make either ourselves or our students happy, but it might save our jobs. Is it worth it? Everyone has to make that judgement for themselves, of course, but there are worse things than losing jobs. I know, having lost one myself a number of years ago precisely because I was more interested in inquiring and encouraging others to do so (see This Isn't Just My Problem, Friend). I have no regrets about it whatsoever. Very much to the contrary, it gave me the needed room to more clearlly conceive and pursue my own distinctive objectives. At the same time, I was, in hindsight, probably less wise than I might have been. As Dora points out, one needn't take on the system directly; one can in small but effective ways "buck the system in practical terms".

Can we together develop and implement an "action plan"? I'd like to think so, and am more than happy to work with others similarly inclined. Thoughts here are one way to go about it. In addition, Alice and I have organized a working group on "open-ended transactional inquiry" and there is a relevant ongoing project with Lansdowne Friends School. Both are bottom up, grassroots efforts, but that may be the best way to go and I'd be delighted to provide more information to anyone interested in getting involved. Also directly relevant is Bryn Mawr's new Teaching and Learning Initiative, and the Empowering Learner's Partnership.



Ian Morton's picture

subjective ideals

In response to the discussions we had this morning on inquiry-based education, I am interested in discussing the subjective stances from which we are engaging the issues surrounding education. While I recognize the benefits of a classroom that can properly balance the use of inquiry-based learning to promote an active interest in the learning process, I must also recognize that such a classroom, when defined in our terms, is idealistic. While I believe that we should strive to meet these ideals, I also want us to recognize that ideals are often a socio-economic privilege. What I mean by this is that what is easier for me to push for (a classroom that doesn’t teach to standards and benchmarks) may not seem like a realistic option for others. My subjective stance on this issue differs from others, and I believe it is important to recognize that my subjective stance may be leading me to view this ideal as more readily feasible than it really is.

I was glad to have Victoria’s voice heard in the discussion today, as I feel her perspective on this issue is an important one for us to recognize, specifically those who, like me, have not experienced inner city schools first hand on a regular basis. It is easy for me to voice the benefits of inquiry-based education and to denounce the irrelevance and foolishness of teaching to standardized tests, but that is because I don’t have the pressure of an administration, of institutionalized authority, weighing down on me. It’s easy for me to tell Victoria to screw teaching for standardized test numbers, but that’s because my job isn’t on the line. If Victoria did decided to rebel against the system and pursue more open-ended inquiry-based teaching/learning, there is a chance her students’ test scores would suffer, as they may not be learning what the standardized tests are testing for, and if those scores go down, the administration would come down on Victoria.

I want to emphasize the importance of recognizing the different places from which we are all coming. What may seem like the obvious course of action to some may not be a viable or realistic option for others and we should therefore not assume that our position applies to the position of others. Again, while an educational reform seems like the obvious course of action to me, it may not be a realistic option to a teacher teaching in west Philly. Allow me to preface this by saying that this is not an attack on Wil, as I have no doubt that he has only the best interests of education and society at heart. But I ask that we consider what it means for someone in Wil’s position, a professor at Bryn Mawr who attended a “hippie school,” to be telling an inner city public school teacher that he/she has an obligation to preserve an important aspect of human nature (inquiry). What is it for me, a privileged male, who attended a very liberal private school my whole life, who was guaranteed a chance to go to college (guaranteed not because of intelligence, but because of class) to tell someone operating in an inner city space that they should be challenging authority in the best interest for society? What I mean by asking these questions, by asking us to consider the positions from which someone such as Wil or myself are making value judgments, is to push us to recognize that it is a privilege we have to be able to theorize about education and society. And as a privilege, the conclusions at which some of us arrive may not be available to others.

Speaking from a privileged place, one must not allow oneself to believe that someone who doesn’t share in those privileges will necessarily share one’s beliefs. One’s privilege allows one to view life and social issues in a much different light, and one consequently tends to lose track of the realistic problems/pressures facing those who aren’t protected by the privilege bubble. Therefore no one should presume to know what is best for someone else. We must be careful not to speak form an intellectual and or moral high ground. (This is not directed at anyone in particular, but is merely a general comment that reflects my own belief.) While I agree with Wil that a teacher has an obligation to tech students in a manner that can facilitate the development of creative, independent and inquisitive minds, I must also recognize that this teacher has an equal obligation to preserve his/her job and to teach students in a way that will allow them to succeed in today’s system. Let’s be honest, the best chance a child growing up in the inner city has of getting out of that environment is to follow the rules and learn in such a way that they can excel at standardized tests. The students who do this are the ones who make it into a school like Bryn Mawr or Haverford, not the students who are challenging authority, who aren’t afraid to have an independent mind, who don’t strive to excel at standardized tests. And while admissions standards may be changing, this is still predominantly the case with higher institutions. (There are deep social consequences resulting from this, which I am currently writing about for another post that I will make later on.)

So we must ask if the teacher’s obligation is to preserve creative and inquisitive minds, or to offer students their best chance to climb the social ladder. (Again, the problem of education as it relates to social organization/hierarchy is a very involved one, which I hope to contribute further thoughts on later.)

If I have misrepresented anyone’s stance, I apologize. Thank you all for your time at today’s symposium.

Dora Wong's picture

I wholeheartedly agree with

I wholeheartedly agree with Ian's thoughtful comments. I also appreciate the frankness and openness with which everyone in the room voiced their opinions and shared their difficulties from where they sit. I wanted to reiterate Natsu's comments about the option of encouraging inquiry-based learning outside the classroom. She has expressed in a very concise manner what has worked for many kids and adults in an overly structured education system. If the goal is to preserve the curiosity and therefore, freedom of mind for all of us, adults and children alike, then any opportunity where we can do this will add up! We, as members of society, "teach" by what we say and do. And as the NetLogo experiment shows, small preferences in each individual can create a massive outcome. So institutional pressure or not, we CAN do inquiry-based learning in our daily lives and 'buck' the system in practical terms.

Now, a question: can we, as caring members of societies, bring like-minded people together - perhaps as an outcome of this minisymposium and make things happen?? I'd be interested in an action plan. We all have plans of our own, but wouldn't it be nice to put our efforts together and row in the same direction and go somewhere??

Wil Franklin's picture

relativism constrained


You make an important point about relative perspectives. Further, I agree that each and everyone of us has a slightly different view and the importance of us to consider each others perspective. This is an important aspect of relativism and is in contrast to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism for one, makes a claim to authority and priviledge and thus to "TRUTH". This can be dangerous for many obvious reason (in the age of 9/11 - I hope this is obvious). On the other hand, relativism can also be dangerous. If relativism in it's extreme is taken to it's logical conclusion then nothing can be judged or compared. How does one adjudicate amoung "stories"? How does one make a decision as to what is "less wrong"?

I firmly believe that fundamentalism is dangerous, but I feel strongly that relativism is not the whole story. Physical laws of nature, historical events, and the sum total of all current context limits the world we know. This means that the world is constrained and not everything is possible.


Thus, I am fully aware when I warn teachers of the inner-city that they must take care to nuture human nature. Paul Grobstein says it best in his post below. Let me just say that the "best way" as you put it, to get out of the system is not necessarily to "climb the ladder". It seems to me, if that was the case, we would not be having this conversation...we would not need to bring up social justice.


The point I really want to make is that nature (the sum total of our reality) limits what we can know. And consequently, some "stories" are "less wrong". I want to strongly suggest, in no uncertain terms, that we need to re-think the dicotomy you set up - nuturing inquiry versus transmitting skills to climb the social ladder - and come down on the side of human nature.


Thanks for your important comments.


Ian Morton's picture

reform in the classroom will be a social reform

Your point about fundamentalism vs. relativism is an major one, one which I have been struggling with throughout my summer research with Paul. Your question, "How does one make a decision as to what is 'less wrong'?" is exactly what I've been stuck on, and I suppose the best we can expect is for consensus among a majority. Isn't that what "Truth" really is anyway -- a belief held by the majority at any given time?

As to social justice, I agree that "climbing the social ladder" may not be (and probably isn't) the best solution to the injustice inherent to the education and socio-economic system. I do believe that the ideal approach would be intellectual and through reform and not on terms in accord with the system with which we find fault. I would be much more satisfied with a reform that nurtured our inquisitive nature, thus promoting intellectual growth and freedom of thought, freedom to question and the freedom to make change. However, to bring about this reform will require a huge push on the part of students, parents, teachers and policy makers alike. Thus my concern is that we not limit our focus to a few classrooms in Philly. I do not mean to suggest this is a poor idea, in fact I firmly believe that the teacher symposiums are a valuable place to start re-thinking these ideas. I only want to stress the importance of recognizing just how much energy there will be opposing a social reform, and that consequently, the changes we wish to make in inner-city classrooms may not be as directly accomplishable as we may be lead to believe.

Again, I do not want to suggest that we should consequently cease efforts to make change. I rather want to stress that in order for these changes to truly manifest we should be entertaining a wider point of "attack." If we send teachers into Philly and have them jump right into new teaching methods, the effort may be made in vain. Teachers could lose their jobs, students could be deprived of an opportunity to otherwise make it out of the city to a college like Bryn Mawr where they can begin to adopt new learning methods and ways of thinking (and while college is an unfortunately late time to start such learning, unlike an impoverished city classroom, it is a space much more capable of nurturing this kind of growth). For this reason the dichotomy between nurturing inquiry versus transmitting skills to climb the social ladder is a much more
difficult one for me to personally pick any one side. I am reluctant to make any judgment about what is ultimately best for students living in the inner-city when I myself cannot fully understand the big picture of what that environment entails.

To return to my main concern, I believe that in order for the efforts of these symposiums to be effective, we should take our time to really consider what we're up against. In so doing, perhaps we can reach a more complete understanding of the situation and from there draft a more comprehensive approach to making reform. Opening teacher's minds to inductive methods of teaching is absolutely a necessary step, but it may not be sufficient. For reform to occur, the most important factor is numbers. To return to where this began, truth is merely what the majority accepts as true. So yes, we should be talking with teachers to offer them a chance to
accept a new truth, that inductive methods used to promote our innate inquisitive nature could benefit the intellectual and personal growth of students, but we must also be convincing the policy makers, the parents, and the school administrations.

Yes, teachers can spread these ideas to students, the next generation of policy makers and thinkers, but they will have a much more difficult time doing so if they are forced to do so on their own, in the face of a social energy that will strive to preserve itself in the face of reform. To more effectively aid teachers in implementing these new methods, I believe we must strive to involve parents and eventually policy makers. However, then we are faced with more sociologic problems that complicate how we to involve parents. As was voiced in the meeting, many parents are apathetic when it comes to education, having to deal with a whole wealth of other difficulties such as money, TIME, and prejudice. I hope to make clear that these issues we are dealing with are thus not solely reconciled within the classroom, and that we should recognize just how complicated a topic we are dealing with.
Wil Franklin's picture

digress, shall we?


Let us talk more about: consensus among a majority. Isn't that what "Truth" really is anyway -- a belief held by the majority at any given time?

Most of the time I come out on the side against absolute truth and hence your statement seems useful. What concerns me however, is the "majority". This is where strict relativism can be dangerous - mob mentality, yes? Might does not make right. When I suggest that physical laws constrains possibility, I am suggesting that even when the majority believes something to be true, it might not be true. For examples of this, think of flat earth theory or earth as the center of the solar system. These were once the majority belief. Does it make them "right"? It was the non-conformist that bucked the system that eventually lead to "less wrong" interpretations of the evidence.

Which brings us back to inner-city classrooms and each one as a microcosm of a larger culture. The study of emergence and chaos would suggest that culture is not necessarily an entity that one can effect directly, but because it emerges from the many interarctions of individuals the only way may be to change individuals. Hence my call to arms for individual teachers. Perhaps the best way to change the large nebulous entity called culture is to change the individuals that are components of it. And if no individual is ready to buck the system then we could be in for a long period of stasis.

Ian Morton's picture

Just to note, I do not mean

Just to note, I do not mean to suggest that we are neglecting to consider the broader social concerns involved -- as Paul illustrates his concern for them in his post -- I only wish to further stress, along with Paul, the importance of considering this from a larger perspective
Victoria Brown's picture

Inquiry based learning has

Inquiry based learning has its place in education. I believe it can be implemented, but only in moderation. Either extreme, traditional education or inquiry-based learning could be detremental. I was very impressed with the undergraduate students, they have great insight and a bright future to follow!!!
Diane OFee-Powers's picture

Inquiry Learnin g

As we all stated this morning, Inquiry Learning should not replace traditional educational practices, but complement it. Most teachers are using inquiry based learning in some way or another. It may not be the ideal version,but..... I do not consider myself as a fence sitter, and I am still enthusiastic about teaching, but I will admit with the Core Curriculum, it is getting harder& harder to implement inquiry learning. This symposium has encouraged me to re-try inquiry learning, BUT now I am switching from teaching science to teaching reading. I feel more confident with Inquiry Learn. in science than reading, BUT I promise to give it a try!
Paul Grobstein's picture

a few thoughts from the inquiry mini-symposium

Thanks all for a rich conversation this morning. Among the things that stick in my mind is Rita Stevens' story of a successfully persisting in adapting the "system" over many years to her own sense of what makes sense, and Syreeta Bennett's story of recognizing the need after one year in the classroom to fit the curriculum to her student's needs. We do of course all work under cultural pressures (yes, even "tenured" faculty), but in the last analysis it is our classrooms and we are part (not a trivial part) of what makes cultures. Maybe next year's mini-symposium should focus on the broader socio-cultural contexts in which we work, both how they influence/constrain us and how we might influence them? I, for one, would like to talk/think more about the notion that "inquiry education" might be not a luxury for the well off but a more effective and cost efficient way to empower everyone and hence relevant not only as a superior form of teaching but also as a way to impact on existing socio-cultural inequities. Thanks to Victoria for being sure this issue was out in the open.

I was interested also, of course, in what seemed to me the majority position that inquiry education should "complement" rather than replace traditional "transmission" educational methods, and think that worth talking about more. I'm not persuaded, for example, that disciplinary problems are greater with inquiry education; my guess is that they would be less if one took it seriously and made it a full time activity instead of a break from .... things kids don't like. Nor that it is "harder" for a teacher; my own experience is it is actually easier and certainly more fun. And I'm not, obviously, persuaded that "cultural" factors should be the dominant basis of deciding what educational methods to employ (or objectives to have). Lots of interesting issues, to think/talk more about. At a minium, though, it seems to me that we had a pretty strong consensus that "scripting" was neither good for teachers nor for students.

Syreeta Bennett's picture

Inquiry-based learning

As human beings, we need the opportunities to explore. Throughout life we seek answers to questions. We choose paths to take but we don't do this alone. Throughout life you have people to guide you and rules to give you structure. This is how I see a classroom, there is structure, there are theories and rules that students have to learn, but there are chances to explore. There are moments students have to find answers that make sense to them and they are comfortable with. As a teacher following the standards I can look at subject and ask them what questions do you have and through their explorations, and my instruction, my goal is that those questions are answered.
Mary Ellen McGinnity's picture

Inquiry Education

The large and small group discussions were interesting and raised some questions for me. One of the things I try to monitor is whether I'm talking too much. My education background was mostly listening with very little questioning. I don't want to be that type of teacher.  As the groups shared their thoughts, I kept redefining inquiry based education. I think it would present itself differently, based on the type of school you're in and the grade level. There are many issues that appear to be non-conducive to inquiry education. However, I agree that it's important to begin at some level in our own classroom setting. If I had to describe what an inquiry-based classroom would look like, I'd say that initially the teacher would create an atmosphere of comfort and rapport between students as well as between teacher and students as rules, expectations, and goals were explained. Lessons would be interspersed with "why" "why not" "how" "what if" and students would be encouraged to do the same as they worked independently, cooperatively, at home, etc. Questioning techniques would be modeled by the teacher so that students were helped to recognize the importance of critical thinking as they learned. Then, the teacher would capitalize on opportunities to encourage inquiry (whole/small group) in various lessons.

***Keep in mind that I teach 1st grade***

RecycleJack Marine's picture

Science as Inquiry

From the first moment I began teaching kids, it was always in some form of inquiry based science. I think today's symposium brought to light important opinions, mostly that as teachers we don't always have freedom to teach how we want to teach. Last year I guided students in many of my classes to explore science by themselves- to inquire through hands-on exploration. I didn't provide them with the answers either, but I still had to try as best as I could to make sure these students were meeting the science standards. I think they were and I think that much of what was "brought to today's table" was valuable information. I will always incorporate inquiry-based learning into my classes, and I don't want to work at a school where this is not encouraged- for whatever reason.
Benjamin Zerante's picture

Symposium Response

I think this morning was a great opportunity to discuss what inquiry based education looks like and whether or not it is feasible to introduce in all classrooms. I really enjoyed hearing the debates and discussions, and everyone brought very interesting points to the table. I think it is important to remember that teachers do have a lot of power. We may face pressure from administration and any number of other outside sources, but when the door closes our students look to us as leaders and instructors. If we believe that inquiry is important, I think it is crucial that we incorporate it into the classroom. This is also a gradual process. It may take several years before I feel comfortable running an inquiry based curriculum. In the end though, I think it is a disservice to my students to just go with the flow of education law and teach to a test with a scripted curriculum. There has to be a balance. I still want my students to do well on standardized tests, but I don't think that desire necessitates buying into a system I don't believe in.
Anne Dalke's picture

not blinking, but tweaking

I had to duck out early this morning, but wanted to make a note here of what I learned and what further questions I had... I could hear/want to emphasize the very strong challenge that inquiry-based learning offers to conventional content-based and standards-based education. I don't want to blink about this, or walk away from it: what I'm saying is that education, as I understand and value it, is not about socialization, but about exploration; not about covering what others have agreed is important, but about making your own map--AND collaborating with others to make a fuller one than any of us could possibility construct alone (see the recent NYTimes article about "a map of the world created by all the people of the world...the end result is that there will be a much richer description of the earth"). Inquiry-based learning, as I understand (and try to practice) it, is about helping everyone both find their voice AND learning to ask questions and be skeptical about what that voice has to say.

So my (immediate) question is about our current project: what does a summer institute that is inquiry-based look like? What dimensions of our current shared exploration need tweaking, in what directions? What questions do we have for one another?

Rosemary Krygowski's picture

Practice What We Preach

  A summer institute that is inquiry based looks like a room where people are involved in inquiry-based  explorations.I think one point that the teachers discussed in our group was that students did need to be guided.I felt yesterday we were guided. The lesson started with all of us involved with our questions and our beliefs about microwaves.I would have never come to class saying I wanted to learn about microwaves.In fact I never gave much thought to it but Liz made me wonder and she filled in many blanks about microwaves. Was this an entirely inquiry base lesson? Does it matter? What is important that I learned something of interest, that I plan to use in my classroom.I feel that true inquiry is a wondereful place to be but a very difficult place to find.
Dora Wong's picture

Register for Inquiry education in Science

Hi Everyone, and Paul (long time no see) -

I am Dora Wong, science librarian at Haverford College and also formerly, at Bryn Mawr College a few years back. I would like to register to attend this mini-symposium until noon, at which time I need to leave and return to my workplace, so no lunch provision is necessary for me.

In my position, I have many opportunities to interact with faculty and students in locating resources that support learning and research. These artificial divide between 'learning" and research ("doing") is what is often mentioned in library collection development principles, as though the two are separate and unconnected activities. But in fact all life-long learners know that it is not. I've been interested in the psychology and process of cognition for a while now but recently because of my own personal interest and happy coincidence of consultation with faculty and students working on curriculum reform, I feel that this has taken on a new sense of immediacy and as a result, I want to further clarify in my mind what inquiry-based learning is, how it is practised and what some of the field researchers can share in terms of classroom observations.

Best wishes and hope to see everyone on Friday,
Dora Wong

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