I don’t think directed, structured instruction has to look as if it is directed and structured. I believe in inquiry-based learning, learning where a problem is put out there and children dissect, investigate, observe, manipulate, explore, construct, test, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and create the answer. This is a highly structured teaching method with the teacher carefully setting up situations that will allow the students to learn through discovery. In this type of learning, the students develop a deep understanding of the problem and its solution. They won’t forget what they’ve learned because they worked hard to figure it out. Because they figured it out for themselves, they get it. They will use it in any place they come across it because they really understand it. They have looked at it from a lot of different angles so they recognize it when they see it in any of its various forms.
Frequently I forget about the advantages of inquiry-based instruction. It takes a lot of time, but the students work harder, are more focused, and remember what they learn. Sometimes I get caught up in the frenzy of checking off objectives, testing standards, moving through content, and what I end up with is pretty much junk. Recently I spent the day developing materials about Maritime signal flags. Each flag represents an idea as well as a letter of the alphabet. Some children really get into codes and I was playing with the flags from that perspective, viewing the materials as center tasks that could be done during the student’s free time. At the end of the day, as I was reflecting on what I had written, the first thought that hit me was, “What objectives are taught through these materials?” I was aghast as I couldn’t think of any. I had spent the whole day working on materials that didn’t teach any objectives! Then I realized that I was once again caught in the trap of the tyranny of educational expectations! There may not have been any objectives I could think of, but there was a lot of good thinking involved in what I was making. Here are some skills brought into play by these materials:
Ole’ Bloom would have been happy with what I’d made. I had once again become so focused on covering lists of objectives that I lost sight of the whole process of thinking, exploring, analyzing, evaluating and creating.
Lists of objectives are very necessary to make sure I don’t wander off into never-never land, a place I really love to be. They provide the structure I need to stay focused on my objective: to help children learn their objectives. But children need time to use the skills they are learning to learn new things on their own—things that are interesting, useful, and important to people different from them. Or even things that aren’t particularly useful or important to anyone else, but are simply interesting and engaging. That’s what centers are for, I think—to allow students to investigate more on their own; kind of a learner’s workshop sort of space. I have to, and WANT to, keep both ideas in the forefront as I develop thematic materials: objectives and standards, presented through inquiry-based materials. It’s easy to get lost in one or the other. Sometimes I have to step back and get my perspective and thinking straight. How about you?