When it comes to improving the post-pandemic classroom experience for teachers and students, school administrators face more than their fair share of challenges. From a lack of qualified teachers and record levels of teacher turnover to low student engagement and struggles with classroom management, it can feel almost impossible to even know where to begin.
But, a solution to all these issues might be right under our noses—or to be more precise, right down the hall in one of our science classrooms. A place where things look unrecognizable from the rest of the school.
From a distance, the first thing one might notice is the noise: the students are all talking. Through the doorway, one will see that the students are out of their seats and moving around. The workspaces might look cluttered and messy. Some administrators might confuse this with sheer chaos.
But step inside and look closer. Watch the students work. Ask them about what they’re doing and what they’re learning. And ask them why it matters. Chances are, they’ll have a lot of fascinating answers. Here’s what to listen for as they respond:
- Do they understand what they are investigating?
- Are they solving a compelling real-world problem?
- Are they deeply focused on and emotionally engaged with the activity?
- Are they drawing connections between this project, other areas of learning, and their own lives?
If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then you’ve got a model science teacher whose pedagogy could also help the rest of the school.
The World’s Oldest System of Education
The “madness” in this classroom is actually a tried-and-true education practice. Over the years, this practice has had many names, but it’s most recently known as “inquiry-based learning.” The name may be new, but the practice is as old as humanity itself. Ancient agrarian societies didn’t just study the movements of stars and planets out of curiosity; they relied on them to solve a problem. They needed a way to keep track of when to plant and harvest crops. Even as young children, we learn by confronting real-world problems and working to solve them.
Unfortunately, once we get older, this often stops being our dominant learning style because traditional formal education flips this approach. Teachers tell students what they need to know, the students memorize it, then the teachers assign a problem to illustrate how to use that knowledge.
The problem with this approach is that the urgency and real-life connection are missing. The all-important “why” doesn’t come until the end of the entire process, if at all. Rather than ask questions, make discoveries, solve problems, and synthesize, students passively receive and regurgitate information that remains abstracted from reality. This also leads many students to feel like what they’re learning doesn’t really matter.
Fortunately, the Next Generation Science Standards are helping science programs get back to these roots. These standards are grounded in concepts and methodology that put real-world, phenomenon-driven, open-ended inquiry at the center of every step. It’s a promising development, but although many states have adopted these standards since they were developed in 2013, some schools, administrators, and teachers are still hesitant to fully embrace them.
The Ripples of Change
Change can feel hard. With so many teachers leaving the profession, many leaders are hesitant to saddle their staff with anything new. Administrators and educators alike are concerned about the planning time required to effectively adopt new strategies and materials, and novice or inexperienced teachers often fear “open-ended” lessons and rely on “safer” methods like readings and worksheets.
Many science teachers have settled on virtual computer-based labs and lessons—an imitation of “hands-on” learning that was necessary during the pandemic. Additionally, post-pandemic students are still lagging in socialization and communication skills, which teachers worry might doom a more open-ended, out-of-the-desk, collaborative approach to classroom culture.
But this practice of question-driven, real-world learning is actually the key to solving all of those issues.
When a group of students are tasked with solving a problem they care about, they will naturally develop critical life skills: healthy dialogue, division of labor, conflict resolution, etc. They will develop responsibility to each other as collaborators and take ownership over the learning process. And they will come to understand through experience that this joyful open-ended way of learning depends on their ability to “reel themselves in” from chaos when their teacher requires it, and they will adjust accordingly.
For overwhelmed or burned-out educators contemplating career change, engaged learning can bring back the joy of teaching as each day brings new student breakthroughs and a sense of reward. For beginner teachers—especially those who don’t come from a science background—this problem-based methodology frames their role in a way that’s much less daunting: as strategic facilitators rather than all-knowing experts.
The intrinsic hands-on nature of science makes it an obvious fit for problem-driven learning, but it’s not the only subject where this approach can apply. Here is some advice to bring inquiry-based learning into your district, school or classroom:
- Social studies and history are all about real-life challenges, so there’s a built-in sense of urgency to draw students in, and endless possibilities for transforming passive learning into hands-on problem-solving. What better way to bring mathematics alive than to apply it to fields like engineering and medicine?
- For administrators who don’t have a background in science or those accustomed to a more traditional style of learning, all of this may feel a little overwhelming. But look at it a different way: no matter our backgrounds, learning by solving problems is baked into every profession and career.
- Tap into what you do know and share that wisdom. Administrators with backgrounds in sports and physical education have a unique understanding of the importance of strategy and teamwork, the power of movement to balance and invigorate more brain-centric learning. Or a background in language arts helps administrators spotlight skills and techniques for effective and meaningful communication. By definition, vocational educators know that on-the-job training is how we learn best.
While the best practices of science teachers are certainly a model for more effective education overall, they cannot succeed in a vacuum. It’s up to administrators to connect those dots between classrooms, and to inspire all their teachers to empower students with a simple mandate: we learn by doing.