Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Inquiry Stylee: Phineas and Ferb

So, I’m a science teacher. Let’s not forget that, as I feel myself becoming more and more conscripted into the legion that is this freakishly active math blogging community. When I teach science I use a method called inquiry. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a psychotically research-supported technique that amounts to the following pedagogical theme:

Do science in science class.

The problem is the same problem that all edu-trends suffer. Someone who really loves the idea espouses it to everyone else. Research is done, and then teachers, who don’t really feel the need for a change, adopt the language but none of the philosophical shifts. I’ve frothed about this before with regards to SBG (click-through only if you’ve had a rabies shot, sorry)

So, inquiry has begun to suffer the predictable fate of being watered down and relegated to students picking form a short list of “inquiry questions” tabulated at the end of text book chapters by trend-surfing, text-book-publishing profit barons.

What’s even worse is that many teachers begin to develop a total aversion to direct instruction. They fear that telling students anything will make the magic inquiry beast shatter into a buhjillion pieces that can only be reassembled by a team of microscopic elves trained specifically for the task.

The lack of direct instruction after inquiry creates a wishy-washy classroom where students never know what they’re learning. Yes, exploration and owning an experiment is totally necessary, but you do NOT want the backlash from leaving loose ends (seriously, watch the video, none of the rest of this will make any sense, if you don’t.):

Thank you Jennifer Whalen for sending me this link out of the blue.

Here’s the first verse:

I have been burned by vague lesson plans and a free-floating curriculum!
I like my rules, baby, etched in stone, ’cause you know I am going to stick to them!
Can I get a syllabus a little discipline? Judge me on a scale from A to F!
You wasted all my time learning how to rhyme, now let me hang it from a treble clef!

A few things of note from the video:

  1. Think Thank Thunk does not endorse the subtle racism about over-achieving, Indian-American students.
  2. Did you catch the first line? This is what inquiry can create in the wrong hands.
  3. The last line might be the most telling, as it indicates that things that are “fun” or otherwise ancillary are a waste of time.

Obviously this video is funny, and was designed for children who watch the Disney Channel. The character is somewhat ironic, given that the assumed behavior of most students is not like our singer, Baljeet.

What does it mean that this sentiment has enough buzz to be included in a Disney cartoon that is marketed to people whose most common life experience is school? It means there’s some really crappy inquiry going on out there. Jokes mask truth, people.

After listening to the song a few times, I had to take a moment and think back about the students I’ve put through the inquiry meat grinder. Were they confused about what we were learning? Was I waiving the flag of trendy pedagogy instead of the what’s-best-for-my-students flag? Perhaps, and yuck.

My solutions for maximizing inquiry’s effectiveness:

There are many models for inquiry, but I use the coupled-inquiry cycle. You should click that link and read the whole article. The author, Dunkhase, is a logistical genius.

The jist is this: Motivate and model to students what a good investigation looks like. Make it simple and to the point while teaching a content standard that must be seen by all. After seeing the model, the students are then let free to examine something that has piqued their interest during the modeled investigation. Finally, resolve the students’ efforts with direct instruction at the end, tying it all together. (assign homework at this point, but don’t grade it). The resolution can also contain a healthy portion of student reflection: have them make connections and claims about what they’ve seen, but do not leave them hanging, this will breed mutiny. Rinse and repeat for as many topics as possible.

The advantages of inquiry are unbelievable. The generation of context through inquiry is so powerful, and necessary, that it makes the resolution’s direction instruction almost a breeze. The kids want answers and are more than willing to sit through a lecture, PowerPoint, or whatever it is that you do. I would say that I spend 15% of my class time in direct instruction. The inquiry parts just provide me with so many hooks to hang content, that we don’t need much more time than that.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with the precipitation of my experiences with inquiry. Here’s when you know things are going wrong:

  • “We can’t think of anything to investigate” (guided investigation was not provoking/clear enough)
  • “I wish he’d explain the ideas more” (resolution is failing to connect experience to content)
  • Guided Investigation becomes recipe following (motivation for guided-investigation was not developed enough)

Things are going well when:

  • Students come up with content knowledge before you “teach” it
  • Students brim with their own question and investigation variations
  • Students ask for direct instruction

This may all sound like it’s too perfect or unattainable in your classroom. I assure you that I am no different than you. I just challenge myself during my morning commute by repeating: “Do whatever it takes to interest them, be fun, and avoid repeating what you’ve always done because it’s easy for you.”

Inquiry is so simple, because all you have to do is get kids interested in outcomes and relationships. They already want to know which kind of basketball shoe is the best, now you can just frame it into an investigation about friction, and the content falls into place.

Shawn Cornally • August 7, 2010

Previous Post

Next Post


  1. Steve Dickie August 8, 2010 - 5:48 am

    I’m with Tyler on this. I’ve been doing inquiry based labs followed by direct instruction for years. I’ve let more and more direct instruction creep in as what I was doing wasn’t really effective. This summer I attended a workshop on Modeling Physics ( After labs modelers follow-up with white boards and Socratic Dialog with a heavy dose of meta-cognition. It looks to be powerful. Plus there’s mountains of research.

  2. Frank Noschese August 8, 2010 - 12:10 am

    Jake: For friction, I show a tug-of-war video. It’s not online, but I found some pictures that will have to do for now:

    The motivator is: “Who won and why? If we can figure out why, then we can have our own tug-of-war and see if physics can predict the winner.” This leads to friction, which leads to shoes. And then we do the tug-of-war. (It only works about 50% of the time, but that makes for great discussion, too.)

    Tyler’s got it: Socratic discussion and whiteboard session. Modeling instruction does this very well. Some videos:

    And not all direct instruction is bad. Like Shawn says, the timing must be right. You all might be interested in “A time for telling”

    followed up with

    Keep up the great work, Shawn!


  3. Avery August 7, 2010 - 8:20 pm

    Just curious…at what point in time are students are ready (academically, developmentally, emotionally, etc) to NOT have the loose ends wrapped up for them? ‘Cause loose ends sure ain’t always wrapped up in the real world. I wouldn’t want to give my students (regardless of age) the impression that there is always a definitive answer and someone who can give you this answer.

    • Shawn August 7, 2010 - 9:59 pm

      @Avery: Good point. I suppose I really mean just clarifying how the knowledge the students have created maps back to the standard canon of knowledge that exists in your curriculum. There are always more questions after investigations, which always lead to new investigations, which makes the cycle repeat itself. I’ve had students iterate the same investigation for an entire semester, wrapping in newer and newer ideas each time because they like their set up so much.


  4. Jake August 7, 2010 - 7:52 pm

    I’d love to see a post on what specific inquiry models you show your students to motivate them. For instance, what is your model for friction that opens them up to asking about basketball shoes?

  5. Tyler Rice August 7, 2010 - 6:41 pm

    I agree with Jerrid on the way we tie up the loose ends. A well facilitated socratic discussion or whiteboard session can really help to accomplish the same purpose at the end of an inquiry cycle.

  6. Tyler Rice August 7, 2010 - 6:39 pm

    I wish somebody had introduced me to the coupled inquiry cycle years ago. I’ve essentially had to figure out that process on my own over the past 5 years!

    I think it’s a really strong model and I plan to show it to other teachers.

  7. Jerrid Kruse August 7, 2010 - 6:21 pm

    I whole-heartedly agree that inquiry has become a watered down buzz word. Unfortunately, the main problem in inquiry professional development is that PD leaders try to make inquiry-based instruction into a series of steps (can you say “oxymoron”? Inknew you could). You might be familiar with “SWH” as it is popular around here. I like SWH, but too many think simply having kids write lab reports in different ways will result in inquiry. No, what the teacher does is the why inquiry is powerful.

    I do have some pushing for you (I usually do). I agree that we ought not leave unnecessary loose ends, but resorting to direct instruction to tie them is not necessary. Now you might mean something different by “direct instruction”, but I’m thinking transmission model. Instead engage students with the loose ends through questions: “what have we learned about floating?”.

    I am not saying to never provide students with info, but to intermix info with questions asking them to reflect on &’use the info.

    • Shawn August 7, 2010 - 9:57 pm

      @Jerrid: We’re on the same page concerning DI.

  8. Tweets that mention Think Thank Thunk » Inquiry Stylee: Phineas and Ferb --
  9. Brendan Murphy August 7, 2010 - 2:33 pm

    You would like Phineas and Ferb, lots of inquiry based learning there.

  10. Jason Buell August 7, 2010 - 12:40 pm

    According to Rhett Allain we’re both math teachers. He’s never wrong. So there.

Comments are closed.