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Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Engaging Students and Teachers in Meaningful Inquiry Work

Many educators are familiar with the concept of inquiry-based learning. In inquiry-based classrooms students actively seek answers; they don’t wait for the teacher to provide them. Students who are given the structure and freedom to create their own skills and knowledge feel empowered to learn. Inquiry-based learning works the same way with educators. Instead of looking to administrators or policy makers, inquiry work utilizes teacher experience and expertise to improve curriculum, assessments, instructional practices, and student engagement. Drawing on educators to identify pressing issues in their schools and work toward solutions is one of the most effective ways to problem solve. It not only improves classrooms and schools by establishing time for educators to think critically about their work and make positive changes, it also validates teachers’ expertise and experience, shifting school cultures toward a more professional and collaborative environment. Ultimately, inquiry work has the potential to improve schools on many different levels.
The current school reform effort in the United States to engage educators in inquiry work is in full swing in New York City. As a result, it is common for school-based teams to engage in mandated inquiry work. As a unit coordinator at a District 75 school in Brooklyn, an important part of my job is to facilitate inquiry-based staff meetings at my site. Where I work we call these "teacher team meetings," but sometimes it is called inquiry work, professional learning communities, or Critical Friends groups. Whatever it is called at your school, one thing that I have learned is that although these meetings create time for teachers to collaborate and work toward the common goal of improving student achievement, often teachers feel that the teams are just another top-down mandate. Many of the teachers at my site have rich conversations with each other all of the time. But, when they are required to attend these meetings, they sit staring at each other (and at me) instead of engaging. In light of this situation, I worked to answer the question, “How can I best engage teachers in meaningful inquiry work?”
In the course of my inquiry work, I read interesting texts, had many conversations with colleagues, conducted a survey of teachers at my site, and most importantly, explored several tools and strategies with my target teacher team. Throughout the school year, I focused on one team of experienced, effective teachers who regularly speak about instruction in a thoughtful way but seem to clam up as soon as they are seated across from each other in the confines of a “teacher team meeting.” Teachers should not show up to meetings just because they have to; inquiry meetings are not intended to waste the valuable time of educators who have many pressing responsibilities. I want them to be motivated by the work they engage in because it is meaningful to them and their students.

About the Author

Sandra Fredricksen is an educator in Brooklyn, New York who is passionate about inclusive education.