for Learning :
Does Technology Support Inquiry?
the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 13, Issue 4) of Connect,
a publication of Synergy
efforts in virtually every discipline promote the idea that students
should be actively engaged in inquiry on a regular basis. Efforts
to infuse technology into schools complement this agenda, with
a common belief that technology is the key to improved inquiry.
In many ways this is a plausible goal. After all, why spend the
untold millions of dollars which are currently allocated to technology
initiatives if they don't "deliver" a return in the form of better
an old anti-gun control advertisement, "Technology doesn't promote
inquiry, teachers do." Despite rhetoric to the contrary, technology
by itself cannot lead to better inquiry. In fact, in many current
software applications, inquiry is actually undermined as students
mindlessly answer multiple choice questions to rack up points toward
a grade. A skillful teacher, on the other hand, can promote inquiry
in class and employ technology in very powerful ways. The focus
must always remain on the teacher's role, the work the students
do, and the overall classroom environment.
presented here show how technology can support and enhance an inquiry
environment. Notice that in each example it is not the technology
per se which makes the activity valuable. It's all in how it's
Video in support
Despite the negative
stereotype of lazy teachers popping in a videotape when they don't
feel like teaching, video holds great promise as an inquiry tool.
For example, a couple of years ago my fourth graders were engaged
in an extended study of various biomes of the world. After constructing
a robust conceptual structure of what constituted a biome, they
were able to make good use of the video to extend their understanding
to new regions of the world.
To begin the
unit, field investigations near the school grounds helped the students
to understand how climate, plants and animals interact to define
a particular region as an ecologically distinct biome. In St. Louis,
they studied seasonal change in the fall, noting changes in temperature
and day length and the impact of these changes on the plant and
animal life in the area. Leaves falling and birds migrating are
but a few of the responses plants and animals have to living in
the temperate deciduous forest.
this understanding, they were ready to move into other biomes,
applying their basic understanding of the interplay of biotic (plant
and animal) and abiotic (climate and terrain) factors. Video tapes
of life in deserts, rainforests, and on Antarctica allowed my students
to learn about the temperature and precipitation in these regions
and how plants and animals adapt to differences in climate. Cacti
retaining water or rainforest plants shedding it provided a context
for the class of how each region has distinctive features. Too
often, students take the local community for granted. By making
such deliberate comparisons we made the familiar surroundings a
bit more strange, promoting greater ecological understanding and
awareness along the way.
piece here is the underlying framework which the students developed
through extended, first-hand experience on the school grounds.
Without this understanding of a biome being defined by the climate,
plants, and animals, their study could easily have been just a
collection of facts about each region. With their framework of
biotic-abiotic interactions, the students were able to analyze
a range of settings, seeing how each region was defined by the
same ecological principles, even if the specifics were different
in each region. In this context, the often maligned (and just as
often misused) videotape took on a powerful role in supporting
the students' inquiry.
Comparing environments: Before using video images,
websites and other resources, local field investigations help students
understand a nearby, ecologically distinct biome. (Here, collecting
water and ambient air temperature data.)
In the next few
years, students will have increasing access to cutting edge tools
such as video technology streaming through the Internet or being
supplied as live, remote broadcasting through videoconferencing
(see for example, the Jason Project at http://www.jasonproject.org,
or the Electronic Expeditions program at http://www.stonybrookvillage.com/
wardmelville/education/education.htm. Jason links students
from around the world on an annual scientific exploration, with
live broadcasts sent to institutions such as science centers or
universities. The Electronic Expeditions project provides a more
intimate link to one or two classes at a time which connect with
a practicing scientist who is out exploring an ecologically sensitive
the specific project or medium, the underlying principle remains
the same: Video serves an important role in bringing students to
distant places, but it is up to the teacher to ensure that the
rest of the curriculum supports significant inquiry as the core
of the experience.
on the web
A number of math "problem
solving" web sites have sprung up in the past few years., including
the Math Forum Problem of the Week contests http://www.mathforum.com/pow based
at Swarthmore College and the Mathematics Contest program sponsored
by the University of Mississippi and the University of Central
problem.html. In these projects, challenging math problems
are posted weekly for students to work on and submit solutions
online. For the past few years I have used these problems to promote
student inquiry, but virtually all of the benefit has been realized
off-line. As with videos, the key is in how you structure the class
to make use of the problems and the exchange with the online mentors.
The sample problem
shown here is typical of the problems posed to elementary students:
is going to have a special treat day very soon! There are
two main items that we can order: veggie dogs and hot dogs.
In my class of 27 students, 22 have placed orders. There
are 15 people who ordered a veggie dog, and there are 10
people who ordered a hot dog.
are two sizes of hot dogs: large and small. Of the people
who ordered only a hot dog, there is one more person who
ordered the large size than ordered the small size.
people will be receiving large hot dogs?
this problem successfully will need to employ logic and reasoning
as well as some basic computation skills. If they generate a solution,
students are invited to submit their solution online to have it
checked by an "online mentor." When I worked as a regular classroom
teacher, I made the most of these problems by having students present
their work to their peers, who in turn would judge whether it was
an adequate solution. In this way, students enhanced their presentation
skills as well as their problem solving abilities. It was gratifying
to watch students become increasingly articulate about their mathematical
thinking both orally and in writing over the course of the year.
Also, we developed a real spirit of inquiry as students wrestled
with what the problem was asking, what different ways the problem
could be interpreted, and which alternative solutions were valid.
In this context,
the response from the person online checking the students answers
is of secondary importance, though their presence did help to promote
growth in writing skills since students knew that they would have
to make their thinking understood. Some of the best thinking, however,
was in students' response to the "online mentors." I found that
students often considered alternatives which the supposed expert
never considered, and in a few cases were even more correct than
the sample problem given here is unsolvable as it is written. Since
there is no data given which helps to determine the hot dog size
preference for the three students who ordered both a hot dog and
a veggie dog, it is impossible to answer the question "How many
people will be receiving large hot dogs?"
In assessing the validity of the problem as it was written, the students
working on it were challenged to think critically about all of the
features of the problem and how it could be solved. In this case,
critical information was missing, though when this was pointed out
in an email message to the coordinator of the project, she insisted
that there was adequate information and that students simply needed
to read the problem more carefully.
student I was working with on this problem submitted what he knew
to be an incomplete solution, giving the size preferences for only
the 7 who ordered only hot dogs and pointing out that he didn't
have enough information to go further. The online mentor for that
week reviewed his solution, and he was given full credit.
The larger issue
here isn't the contradictory responses which came about from the
project staff members. Rather, notice the higher level thinking
which the student was engaged in as he:
it was solvable,
concerns about the problem,
contradictory messages he received from the two online experts.
That is precisely
the kind of higher order inquiry about mathematics which we hope
to instill in our students. The combination of a challenging problem,
an inquiry-oriented environment, and the give and take with online
mentors about mathematical thinking made it happen. Each of these
three facets contributed to a successful learning experience.
And the key
to effective use
I believe we
should look past the specifics of the technology to see whether
the task is engaging and worthwhile, and if it can promote the
kind of inquiry you want to sustain in your classroom. There are
many great inquiry projects available, most of which can be extended
considerably with the infusion of technology. The key, however,
isn't the technology, it's you as the teacher, the kind of work
you ask students to engage in, and the type of classroom environment
you create. By modeling a disposition toward inquiry, rewarding
creative and critical thinking, and employing technology resources
where they are helpful, your class will have richer inquiry experiences.
Coulter is the Instructional Technology Coordinator at the Missouri
Botanical Garden, leading teachers and students in a variety of
environmental monitoring projects. His new book, Network Science
a Decade Later: The Internet and Classroom Learning, co-authored
with Alan Feldman and Cliff Konold, has just been released by Lawrence
Erlbaum Publishers. A review will appear in the next issue of Connect.
post this issue of Connect granted by Synergy
Learning International, Inc.
San Francisco, CA 94123