Inquiring Minds Learn to Read, Write, and Think: Reaching All Learners through Inquiry

By Wilhelm, Jeffrey D.; Wilhelm, Peggy Jo | Middle School Journal, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Inquiring Minds Learn to Read, Write, and Think: Reaching All Learners through Inquiry


Wilhelm, Jeffrey D., Wilhelm, Peggy Jo, Middle School Journal


Teachers are well aware that their primary challenge is motivating students. This is particularly true for students who are reluctant, with a history of struggling or failing in school, who may have a "damaged learner identity." After 10 years of studying this problem through teacher research in our own schools and demonstration sites, we have found that reframing curricular topics as inquiry promotes engagement, literacy, and deep learning for all students, especially reluctant ones, and invites them into the classroom project as full and necessary participants.

Inquiry is a particularly democratic form of teaching and learning (see Wilhelm, 2007) that privileges preexisting interests, unique perspectives, and the various strengths of students who typically may be marginalized in school. Inquiry takes various forms. Examples include general forms such as the "inquiry and design framework," which we use (Lehrer, 1993), or Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), as well as disciplinary-specific ones, such as Cognitively Guided Instruction in math and Physics by Inquiry, and involves project-based learning and problem-oriented/case-based learning. All these models share the same basic features, are informed by the same cognitive research, and are supported by robust data sets.

Inquiry meets the needs of all students, particularly those who are reluctant, because it makes the purpose of learning explicit, provides opportunities to make and do things with what is learned, helps students stake their identities as learners and-perhaps most important-allows students to achieve visible signs of competence, deep understanding, and actual accomplishment (Smith & Wilhelm, 2006).

The problem of motivation

When Jeff (Author 1) and Michael Smith conducted their award-winning research into the literate lives of young men (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002, 2006), the most salient findings involved motivation. To summarize one major point: every boy in the study-equal numbers of whom were identified as low-, middle-, and high-achieving-rejected most school literacy and learning on the basis that school did not meet specific conditions, similar to those identified by Czikszentmihalyi (1990) as characterizing "flow" experiences. "Flow" is being so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. He identifies the experience of flow as the hallmark of engagement, motivated performance, and the experience of happiness.

However, every boy in the study was highly motivated to engage in literacy and learning activities outside school in ways that met all the dimensions of flow experience. (This included an illiterate boy who subscribed to car magazines that he solicited friends to read to him as he tricked out his car.) The conditions of flow, therefore, were closely associated with the lack or presence of engagement in learning of any kind, including that of literacy.

Jeff and Michael collapsed Czikszentmihalyi's eight aspects of flow into four interrelated principles and then added a fifth, social interaction, which was sought after by all the boys and typified all the literacy and learning activities the informants found engaging.

Conditions of FLOW experience

* A clear purpose, intermediate goals, immediate and continuous feedback about one's progress.

* A challenge that requires an appropriate level of skill and assistance to meet the challenge (as needed to be successful).

* A sense of control and developing competence (e.g., learners exercise their own voice, stake their opinions and identity, make meaningful choices, and name their growing competence).

* A focus on immediate experience (e.g., what is learned has current relevance and is connected personally to students as well as to the world; students make and do things with an immediate function; involves fun and sometimes humor).

* Social interaction (e.g., learners are involved in group work, use peer assistance, negotiate and share what is learned, participate peripherally but legitimately in larger communities of practice [see Lave & Wenger, 1991].

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