Friday, September 11, 2015

The Amazing Potential of Inductive Inquiry

When I started teaching, I had two gears: lecture, and assigning independent work.  There was little rhyme or reason to which I would employ in a given situation, and even less nuance to the execution.

I remember the first time I taught my students about the Noble Savage narrative.  I was excited to teach it, because I found it really interesting--there seemed to me to be so much potential for good discussion in the idea that man is more pure living in a state of nature--but I had not spent much time thinking through my bigger purpose, or even necessarily how to teach it.  The result was a disjointed lecture with awkwardly phrased questions for the students.  Instead of lively discussion, painful silence.

A few years ago, I had the brilliant brainstorm to have the students identify how the Noble Savage narrative came up in film and literature, looking at movie trailers for "Dances With Wolves", "Pocahontas", "Tarzan", "The Last Samurai" and "Avatar", and reading the first chapter of Deer-slayer by James Fennimore Cooper.  This proved more engaging than the lecture--especially when I made the decision to actually sing "Colors of the Wind" rather than just show the YouTube video--but it was still detached from a bigger purpose, and clumsily executed: the task grew tedious quickly, and the first chapter from Deer-slayer proved too lengthy to read in a single class period.

Last year, the lesson on Noble Savage finally found its place in a module on labels and assumptions, in a larger unit about the relationship of love and mercy to justice.  I also made the conscious decision to not tell the students about the Noble Savage narrative right off the bat--they had to wrestle with each of the movie trailers, as well as short excerpts from Deerslayer and Washington Irving's Traits of Indian Character without knowing what the unifying thread was.  It turns out that this simple switch makes a big difference!  When the students are left a little bit off-balance, not knowing exactly what thread unites all of those movies and those excerpts from literature, they are more motivated to find the answer.  Deduction (starting with a general rule and applying it to specific examples) has its place, to be sure, but induction (starting with the specific examples and finding the general rule based on the examples) is more engaging in the classroom.  When I made the switch last year, it was an arbitrary decision that happened to work out well.  This year, I intentionally played up the disequilibrium by telling the students at the outset what the common theme wasn't: not all were love stories; not all were about a war; not all were about Native Americans.

It was fun to listen to the students wrestle and try to make sense of things.  In both the Humanities and 1st period English class discussions, students caught on to the right answer quickly, having very nearly (or in one case, completely) arrived at the Noble Savage narrative with their small groups.

It's exciting to realize that something as simple as the type of inquiry I ask the students to do (inductive as opposed to deductive) could have such a profound impact on engagement with the task. Already, I can think of a few other lessons and activities that I can restructure so that they follow this same pattern.  It is my sincere hope that my students will hold onto these understandings more closely as they have been earned by actively seeking to overcome confusion, rather than simply passed down to them by me.

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