Last year, I accidentally fell into an inquiry-driven style of teaching.  This year, I set out to do it on purpose.  Like Brian Frank’s example of students who do worse on motion problems after learning kinematics equations, my performance went down.  Unlike in that example, though, inquiry is a sense-making tool for the teacher, not just the students, so I’m doing more sense-making, not less.  The upshot: my awareness has increased while my performance has decreased.  (The proper spelling is A-N-X-I-E-T-Y).

Things that improved

I added a unit called “Thinking Like a Technician,” where students practice summarizing, clarifying, and identifying physical causes, using everyday examples.  When we got to atomic theory, they were less freaked out by the kind of sense-making I was asking them to do.

I started using a whiteboard template, based on Jason’s writing about Claim-Evidence Reasoning.  Like Jason, I introduced it to students as “Evidence-Claim-Reasoning.”  The increased organization of whiteboards makes things flow more smoothly for whiteboard authors when the discussion happens a few days after the analysis.  The standard layout lowers the cognitive load for students in the audience, since they know what to expect and look for.

The major tactical error I made

Last year I started with magnets and right away focused on students’ ideas about how atoms cause magnetic phenomena.  That means that our first area of inquiry was atoms.  This year, I thought I was being smart and started by digging into what students wondered about electricity.  BIG MISTAKE.  Students wonder a lot about electricity — mostly about how you can get electrocuted, or how to give someone else a shock. It was fascinating reading for me, but they have absolutely no tools for making sense of the answers to their questions.  The conventional wisdom about “electrons always seek ground” and “electricity always takes the path of least resistance” doesn’t help.  Since they start with neither foundational knowledge about electrons nor measurement technique with a multimeter, their attempts to either research or measure their way towards coherent ideas were random and pretty fruitless. As usual, Brian sums it up — I had backed us into a corner where “this makes no sense and right now we have no tools for making sense of it.

We are finally recovering (about 6 weeks later… *sigh*).  Some useful things got accomplished in the mean time — noticing and measuring the discrepancies between meters, figuring out some things about batteries along the way (which will help in the next unit).  Note for next time: start with atoms.  Atoms are in concrete things like chairs and sweaters — it avoids the need to start with the jumble of ideas called “electricity” (power/charge/energy/voltage/current/potential/etc.).  Also, give a quiz earlier on about meter technique.  It helped students strengthen understandings that would have been helpful a month ago.

Last thoughts

When engaging in a new strategy (whether for students or me), make sure it has some form of sense-making built-in.

Also, make sure the rest of life is not chaotic and stressful while doing these experiments.  The existential angst can be a bit much.