A colleague writes about a workshop she co-presented recently, in which participants generated their own questions and engaged in guided inquiry. The workshop went well and generated plenty of debate (one of its goals), but “some liked it more then others.” Knowing the presenters, I’m confident that the workshop was a big success, but there was clearly variation in how successful it was for different participants.
That kind of variation, or unpredictability, is what leads some teachers to prefer methods with clearly-defined objectives, carefully-orchestrated procedures, and techniques for keeping everyone “on task.” Methods like that, are seen as more predictable, hence easier to measure, repeat, and guarantee results.
But things are not always as they seem. When the emphasis is on the procedure, and not on the student’s own inquiry, one can ensure that the procedure is executed faithfully. The formal lecture is the epitome of that, with the timing and mode of delivery all specifiable in advance. But the student learning can actually be far less predicitable. When students are in a lecture hall, or even going through a highly-structured exercise, their minds can be far away. The predicitability for the teacher is matched by unpredictability for the learner.
On the other hand, when students are supported in their own inquiries, the teacher’s job can feel very unpredictable, and because of that scary, and even unprofessional. It can be unpredictable for the students as well, because true inquiry can lead into unknown territory. But what goes on in the interaction among students and teachers becomes more visible and manageable. Collaborative inquiry allows engagement with the student’s thought and action, while the so-called “structured lesson” may obscure what students really think and feel. When students’ work is highly constrained, we’re left with little insight into their learning; teaching becomes totally unpredictable.
Our quest for certainty in teaching thus leads us to adopt methods that actually increase the uncertainty. But there is no way to ensure predictable teaching and learning. As Amos Pettingill says in The White Flower Farm Garden Book (referring to a zone chart for planting):
As a guide for the experimentation we so freely encourage, the table opposite will be helpful. We must caution, however, that it is rife with half-truths–despite our best efforts at disclosure. We are dealing here with living things whose colors, habits, and general constitutions will vary with locale and with the skill of the individual gardener. This unpredictability, which strikes terror into the heart of the beginner, is in fact one of the glories of gardening. Things change, certainly from year to year and sometimes from morning to evening. There are mysteries, surprises, and always, lessons to be learned. After almost 40 years hard at it, we are only beginning.