Is the Spirit of Inquiry Dead?

Why is it that students stop asking questions about the world in which they live? Why is it socially acceptable not to know something, and not to be the slightest bit interested in finding out the answer? Why does the spirit of inquiry die?

In the centre where I work, we deal with students from Grade 000 right through to Grade 12, and there is a clear trend that can be observed: the younger ones are more interested in engaging with their worlds while the older students are quite content just to sit back and get information spoon-fed to them. Content is probably not the best word to use, because I do not think they are at all contented by being in classes, but they are apathetic enough not to want to engage with the world around them. If something doesn’t influence them directly, then they don’t care.

It’s easy to see why school can seem agonisingly dull to young men and women: it’s slow, it’s repetitive and, for the most part, it involves adults standing in front of them trying to convince them to listen to whatever is being presented attentively, because it’s going to be in a test later. And if you pass that test (which means getting more than 40% in some cases), then we move on. No one asks about the other 60% you missed. There’s no halting to get to the bottom of the content that hasn’t yet been grasped. No. There’s a curriculum to get through, and we’ve covered that section and now we’re moving on. You’ll just have to make up for that 60% at a later stage.

This would be bad enough if this happened once or twice, but the fact is that this is an almost daily routine for high school students. Arrive, be spoken at for 8 hours and then go home to go over the work that was spoken at you only to have the whole thing repeated again the next day. Anyone who has a dislike for international travel will know what it’s like to be stuck on a plane for 5+ hours. It’s awful. And even travel at least offers the promise of an exciting destination at the other side, and there’s food.

Imagine taking an international flight every day for twelve years. I know we’ve all been to school and we got through it, but imagine going back. I know many of us claim that we wish we were back at school without the worries and the stresses of adult life to bring us down. We long for the ease of life school presented.

I don’t. I hated school. I hated the routine, the apparently pointless rules (how can there be a corridor at school where students aren’t allowed to walk?) and I was frustrated in many of my lessons. I look at the loads the students at my school have to balance and I do not wish myself back there for a second. And yet, I am responsible, in part, for perpetuating many of the things I disliked so terribly at school. Somehow in the years since I left school as a student and returned as a teacher, I forgot how awful some of the practices were. I can say with an honesty that makes my stomach churn that in many ways I have become one of those teachers who did the things I hated so much when I was at school

I can start listing excuses about pressures, and deadlines and curricula and being able to measure progress and stress etc., but the fact remains that I am feeding a system with which I fundamentally disagree. In doing this, I am directly responsible for crushing the spirit of inquiry I long to see in my students.

When school becomes all about getting through content and preparing for tests and assignments, when the process of learning is driven by results rather than by a sense of discovery and wonder, when we focus on the things that actually are going to have very little relevance in life beyond school, we kill the desire for knowledge. Students get trained not to care about a task unless it’s for marks, and who can blame them? When you have 8 teachers all giving you assignments on top of sporting, social and family commitments, you need to be practical with the time you have. If something is not going to give you a tangible reward, then it is, effectively, a waste of your time.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point here. What I want to do, which I think is often forgotten in blogs like this, is posit ways that schools need to change if we’re going to start remedying the problem that has been created.

First and foremost, there needs to be a de-emphasis of marks and results. I would love to see terms that are completely assessment free. Work will be done, of course, but marks and quantifiable data will not happen at all. I think that when this starts at first, many students will bow out or become disengaged, because they have been programmed not to care. However, I believe that after a while—and with the right kind of curriculum in place—they will start to buy in. To coin a modern acronym, FOMO (fear of missing out) will settle on some students and they’ll start to participate, not because they have to, but because they want to. And that has to be the most critical element in rekindling a spirit of inquiry. When students are self-motivated to be involved, they can do extraordinary things. I challenge anyone to find a student who supposedly ‘cannot study’ or ‘can’t remember anything’ and ask them about something they have a vested interest in. Get them to tell you the leading goal scorers in the current UEFA season, or to show you how complex their Minecraft world is, or to talk about their favourite music and soon you will see that they definitely can remember things and often with astonishing detail.

Imagine harnessing their field of interest  and channelling it into learning. I don’t believe for one second that this can ever be achieved by giving students the conveyor-belt treatment. We need to take a risk, ditch the assessing and measuring and give students the chance to re-engage because they want to do so.

Secondly, and probably lastly for this blog entry, we need to find a way to boost individual confidence. Something happens between the ages of 10 and 14 that causes many young people to stop believing in themselves. They become self-conscious about their work, how they look, what their voice sounds like or how others perceive them. School needs to make a concerted effort to find ways to celebrate individuals. Telling students that they are unique and they matter has very little consequence if we don’t mirror this in our practice. I think that during the terms where we’re not assessing, we should be giving students the opportunity to be their weird and wonderful selves and to help them celebrate it. Bumbling along through a set curriculum only reinforces the need to fit in or be ostracised. Helping students to find their talents and applauding individuality will not only boost confidence and help creativity, but will encourage community. If this were to happen, I believe we would see students who are more excited to give ideas a go, to explore, to venture opinions and I believe bullying would become a thing of the past. I believe that confidence breeds inquiry, because people will not be scared of being wrong, and others will not victimise people for being wrong, but will try to find solutions together.

Last week I spoke about classrooms being microcosms for the world we want to see and I stand by that opinion. Imagine what the world would be like if the two scenarios I outlined here rippled out into society. A genuine spirit of inquiry, a thirst for knowing more and a sense of confidence to attempt, to try, to probe is what will move civilisation forward. It is the solution to problems that have not even arisen yet and it is, I believe, the only way to start moving towards a more peaceful accepting world.

The sooner we get our students off the production-line, the better.

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