Research Profile -- Graduate School . Spring 2001 . Vol. 23 No.1 UWM Home

Cultivating inquiring minds

New method of teaching math and science tries to pique students’ curiosity and connect learning to life experiences.

By Joan Lenherr

Photo: Sam Castro

“I wonder.”

That sentiment of curiosity, uttered in hundreds of languages for countless centuries, has been the basis on which most human knowledge is built. Without wonder, there would be no philosophy, science, math, art, and literature.

Unfortunately, too often the classroom experience has been anything but wonderful for students. But an educational movement is gaining ground, particularly in math and science instruction, that seeks to put the wonder back in learning. It’s called inquiry-based teaching and it’s a new way of looking at education that springs from a very old source.

It starts with a question

At its core, inquiry-based teaching holds that there is no meaningful learning if students aren’t curious. To learn, students must seek answers, devise solutions, share explanations, and make decisions. The emphasis changes from memorizing facts to internalizing learning skills that will stay with students long after they forget the Periodic Table.

Socrates was one of the first educators to use inquiry-based learning. He piqued his students’ interest in a topic and then asked open-ended questions, encouraging students to come back with their own answers. He insisted that they justify their ideas. Much of traditional Western philosophy is based on the answers to Socrates’ questions. The ideas are still powerful. So is the teaching method.

“The (inquiry) programs are more engaging and more connected to the student’s life experience,” says DeAnn Huinker, UWM associate professor of curriculum and instruction and director of the university’s Center for Mathematics and Science Education Research.

For example, one inquiry-based module involves having third-graders measure their own feet and those of fourth-graders and adults. The children compare the measurements, interpret the data, and learn that math can be fun and practical, Huinker says. “Students are active and engaged in investigation first, and the skills, which are richly embedded into the curriculum, come second. These programs present the broader scope of mathematics. It’s more than computations. Children learn the tools of geometry and data analysis from kindergarten on.”

Deb Generotzky

How many pockets? Based on an informal survey, children in Jeff Karbowski’s 4th grade class at Milwaukee’s Pierce Elementary School make predictions about the number of pockets everyone in the room is wearing.
After decades of exhaustive classroom research and field-testing, educators believe they understand how to create effective inquiry-based curriculum. But even great teaching tools will fail if there isn’t a system in place to support them.

“We have seen a number of effective curricula,” says Craig Berg, UWM associate professor of curriculum and instruction and director of two initiatives designed to improve math and science education. “We’ve seen improvements on how teachers are prepared. We have more research to draw on about how students learn.” But much improvement is needed before schools reach the level of instruction needed for effective science education, he says.

“Classroom teachers are doing the best they can with the tools they have and the conditions they work in.”

In 1984, the National Academy of Science brought together top scientists, business leaders, parents, politicians, and educators to reform the U.S. educational system to be “first in the world by near the end of the 20th century.” The new emphasis is on systemic change. It’s an emphasis being felt in Milwaukee.

Setting the standards for Milwaukee Public Schools

The Milwaukee Urban Systemic Initiative (MUSI) seeks to make fundamental changes in the way mathematics and science are taught in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The Initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, has aided MPS in setting curriculum standards and provided teachers with continuing education on inquiry-based teaching methods through UWM.

“Before MUSI began, there were pockets of interactive and exciting teachers,” Huinker says. “The goal is to bring the entire district up to that level.”

One of the programs most successful components involves identifying “lead teachers” who receive in-depth training on inquiry-based curriculum from UWM instructors. The “lead teachers” return to their schools energized and ready to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

Sam Castro
Students in Carolyn Yanasak’s 8th grade classroom at Hartford Avenue University School investigate the effect of energy from the sun being absorbed on the earth’s various surfaces.

“Peers listening to peers works well,” says Mary Henry, MPS director of MUSI. “The teachers are more receptive to listening to each other and sharing. We have real teachers sitting around the table and looking at students’ work together.”

MPS recently set curriculum standards for elementary and middle school math education, Henry says. The programs are a radical departure from traditional math education.

“What’s most meaningful to me as a parent is that math is no longer approached as there’s one way to get that answer or one way to do this type of problem,” says Melissa Hogan, whose daughter is learning inquiry-based math at an MPS school.

“It’s that she as an individual will be able to find knowledge that she has and be able to apply it in a way that’s meaningful to her. What she’s doing is guided by the curriculum and the teachers, but it’s really coming from her.”

Just as there is seldom one right answer in life, inquiry-based math education demonstrates that there isn’t one right way to solve problems. Children are encouraged to use and adapt knowledge they are comfortable with to achieve the answer. For example, if a child is asked to multiply 9 x  13, she doesn’t have to write out a traditional calculation. Instead, she could approach the problem by multiplying 9 x 10 to get 90 and 9 x 3 to get 27. Then it’s easy math to add 90 and 27 for the answer of 117. Or it could be any other numbers she feels comfortable working with, no matter how many steps it takes. It’s not a free-for-all, however. Teachers need to guide their students to ask pertinent questions and find effective solutions.

Because it’s so different from the way most parents learned math, MPS conducts workshops to get them accustomed to the new homework their children are bringing home.

Inquiry-based curriculum is also a tough sell for some teachers.

“There are still some pockets of teachers digging in and not using the curriculum,” Henry says. “It requires more energy and planning. You can’t hand out mimeographed worksheets, explain a couple of problems and sit behind your desk while students fill out problems anymore.”

But there is one group who has an easy time adapting.

“I think kids love it,” Henry says. “They like the way when they put things out there the teacher doesn’t say, ’No, that’s wrong.’ Kids can show their answers and explain their ideas, which makes them feel good instead of stymied.”

The world as science classroom

Technology also plays an important part of changing the face of the math and science classroom. The Internet is opening up opportunities to stir children’s imaginations in ways teachers couldn’t dream of even a decade ago.

The Milwaukee Telecommunications Project, a partnership between the Center for Mathematics and Science Education Research and MPS, aims to improve teachers’ comfort and experience with the Internet so they can bring its wealth of information into classrooms.

“What we’re trying to do is foster data sharing between MPS and the world,” says UWM’s Berg, who directs the project. “Students and teachers share and dialogue beyond to the classroom to the rest of the world, just like real scientists do.”

The Predictable Pumpkin Project is a good example. Two fifth-grade classes at Garden Homes Elementary School in Milwaukee observed, weighed, measured and calculated the volume of pumpkins. Using these measurements, the students predicted the number of seeds inside before cutting the pumpkin open and counting the seeds. After obtaining the results, the students determined if there was a correlation between the numbers of seeds inside pumpkins grown in different regions of the country. Schools located in 23 states across the U.S., Canada and Brazil also participated in collecting and sharing data.

“The Internet opens a lot of horizons out there that we cannot deliver within four walls,” says Carmen Baxter, MPS science curriculum specialist.

Hands-on training for hands-on teachers

One way to improve education is to change the way science and math teachers are trained. Student teachers steeped in inquiry-based methods and analysis are more comfortable with challenging curriculum once they reach the classroom. The Milwaukee Area Collaborative Science and Math Teacher Education Program (MACSTEP), also directed by Berg, is a yearlong, in-depth program that emphasizes research-based lesson planning and classroom objectives as well as innovative teaching materials and techniques.

“I loved being a science teacher, but in the classroom I could only reach about a hundred kids a year. By teaching 30 teachers how to teach science better, they can go out and touch a hundred kids each. Through them, I’m improving the science education of 3,000 kids each year.”

—Ray Scolavino, MACSTEP instructor

Ray Scolavino graduated from MACSTEP in 1991, taught science in high schools in Burlington and Milwaukee, and then returned to UWM to pursue a doctorate in urban education. He now assists Berg with organizing, placement and advising for the program.

“MACSTEP is special because of the way student teachers get out and into the schools,” Scolavino says, “and the excellent instructors like Dr. Berg and classroom teachers we bring in from the field. We try to give our students the realism of what’s happening in the schools and we stress that they analyze their teaching methods. When I graduated, I was ready to go into the school and I had more cutting-edge knowledge than colleagues who had been teaching for years.”

Up to 95 percent of MACSTEP enrollees are returning students with degrees in law, science, medicine, and other disciplines. Many have been in the workforce for several years when they hear the call of the classroom.

“They are very motivated and highly dedicated,” says Berg. “They’ve made the decision that they want to teach and they’re committed.”

The demand for graduates from the program is high, he says. Last year, all MACSTEP graduates had positions by the beginning of the school year. This year, eight students have already jobs secured just on the promise that they will complete the program this year.

Scolavino sees his graduate work as a way to spread the word about more effective teaching. “I loved being a science teacher, but in the classroom I could only reach about a hundred kids a year. By teaching 30 teachers how to teach science better, they can go out and touch a hundred kids each. Through them, I’m improving the science education of 3,000 kids each year.”

And one thing that’s becoming increasingly apparent is that good teachers never stop going to school, Huinker says. Through the Center for Mathematics and Science Education Research, many experienced teachers are also gaining the tools of inquiry-based teaching at workshops and subsidized courses.

“I love the challenge of teaching teachers,” Berg says. “Generally, teachers come in with entrenched ideas of how to teach. I like to expose them to new ideas and provide them with evidence that’s counter to how they’re teaching. It’s great to watch them stretch and try new approaches.”

In other words, the days of 20-year-old filmstrips, worksheets and monotone lectures are numbered. And students throughout Milwaukee are thankful.  

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