“A good inquiry is something you have to turn off when you get to other classes, not turn on when you get to this class.”
I’ve said something similar to the above oh, about twenty times in my young teaching career. I’ve said it this often because it’s my go-to response for students who struggle with finding “the right inquiry question” – as if there were just one “right” question.
Allowing students to choose their own adventures in learning can be exciting, rewarding, and amazing; but this can also be frustrating for students and teachers – as this task is both challenging and terrifying for some. They want to pick a “good” inquiry, one that their teacher “will like.” They are afraid to be curious… afraid to take risks… afraid to do something that is entirely controlled by them.
Toddlers and young elementary school children take risks in learning, they are open about their curiosity and wonder… but something happens on the way through middle school doorways which withdraws that delight in learning, replacing it with fear, apprehension, and apathy. Why is that? (Seriously, I would love to know – I’ve read a lot of theories – more on those later… but I would seriously love to know).
But I digress…
To combat the opposition that some students present in the face of being allowed to choose what they learn and how they learn it – I ask them: “What is the thing that you just can’t stop thinking about in class? When you walk home, where does your mind wander? Do you ever wonder about something over and over again – have you ever been suddenly reminded of a topic in the back of your mind? Because that thing – that’s what you should do your inquiry on…”
I can positively say that I’ve been successful 1 of 20 times when approaching inquiry using this method… but 1/20 is still a win!
I find it useful, also, to share my own interests, passions, and questions that have been bugging me for a while. I’ve talked about my fascination with Adam Smith’s A Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Capital – and how their publication dates align with the US Declaration of Independence and Canadian Confederation, respectively. (This one is a stretch – but I do wonder if the social, cultural, and intellectual conditions which allowed for the research, writing, and publication of these two foundational documents have also influenced the trajectories of each of the countries.) I’ve talked about dinosaurs, and how I can stare at a Cassowary for hours just imagining it’s long-past relatives.
But the most successful personal inquiry example, to date, is my relationship with Voice of Fire – the Barnett Newman painting shown in the image at the top of this blog post. Like many Canadians, I learned of this painting in the late 80s when the National Gallery purchased the work for its permanent collection to the tune of $1.8 million. That’s a lot of scratch for two blue stripes separated by a red stripe. As a child, I did not have a firm grasp of the value of a dollar – but I knew that a million was quite a lot of them… and I, with the rest of the country, was curious as to how the gallery could pay so much for what seemed like so little.
My inquiry has taken me to studying Newman’s history. Most notably is his opposition to the Vietnam war – and how bringing this work and its message to Expo 67 in Montreal, alongside symbols of so-called American progress, was daring, irreverent, and fascinating. I’ve gone through phases of “I could do that”, laughed at the ties and t-shirts with the image displayed above text that read “Now where’s my million?”, and scoffed at art aficionados who’ve defended the piece. I’ve watched videos of art critics discussing it and the works of other abstract expressionists. I’ve read countless pages online and gritted my teeth through the comment section of newspapers whenever there’s a price update on the work (It’s valued at over $40 million now – go figure).
But, one of the best sources of inquiry for this has been my mother. She’s pretty amazing – and her love of sharing her knowledge and appreciation of art and art history has been a gift to her friends and family for years. Listening to my Mom describe seeing the piece for the first time settled it for me – I was going to have to see this in person.
I shared this journey with the photographer who took the above photo… and he captured my relationship with the painting beautifully: I’m standing aside, with my thumb up, and gazing upon this giant of a work. I love how I’m just out of focus – it is perfect as this is still an active inquiry for me; I still have not resolved all of my questions. I love the journey this work has taken me on.
If you think of this purchase as a “per Canadian” number – the gallery spent roughly five cents per Canadian on this work. I’d say they spent my nickel well… and selling it for a little over a dollar each now just wouldn’t seem right. Sound investment, if you ask me. But the most important investment I can make in my country is through teaching – and helping students to find and follow their passions.
As a classroom teacher, it’s important that I share my own inquiries with the students – but I need to find better ways of inviting them to share their inquiries with me. This will happen by continuing to develop relationships with my students, introducing them to the worlds of wonderful curiosities, or just allowing them time to build toward a great inquiry. Inquiry shouldn’t be the thing that you have to turn on when you get to class… it should always be running!