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Of inquiry and ignorance

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“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And is more interesting.” — Stuart Firestei in “Ignorance: How It Drives Science”

As the school year begins, educators (and parents) will encounter students who pose the question: “Why do I need to learn this?” All too often we brush off the question with answers like, “If you want to become a X (insert profession), you need to understand X (insert content).” Alternatively, we instruct in such a manner that fosters the perception that everything exciting and important in a discipline has been accomplished. In 1609, Shakespeare expressed it this way.

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which labouring for invention bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child.
— Shakespeare Sonnet 59

Taking an inquiry approach to teaching STEM topics avoids shallow answers and lectures on the accomplishments of past generations. Inquiry makes use of students’ natural curiosity and values the type of ignorance that drives science. By inquiry-based instruction I mean modeling “the range of cognitive, social, and physical practices” used in science. The inquiry approach to education arises from constructivist learning theory that emphasizes the experience of the learner over the delivery of content and the idea that “there is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner or community of learners.”

Inquiry relies upon ignorance. Ignorance, in this case, is not a derogatory term but rather an asset. Acknowledging one’s ignorance provides opportunity to ask and explore questions. As Firestein points out early in his book, “Ignorance: How it Drives Science,” when scientists sit down to talk shop, they don’t rehash the known, rather, they discuss the limits of their knowledge and what to learn next. What we know can be looked up on the Internet, what we don’t know remains to be explored.

Picture the relationship between knowledge and ignorance as an inflating balloon: the more one learns (contents of the balloon) the more questions arise (surface area of the balloon). Inquiry becomes the process by which we increase our knowledge AND increase our wonder. Also, the image helps me understand why all those lab reports I wrote in grades 6-12 ended with the requirement of posing questions for future exploration!

The appropriate use of ignorance needs additional explanation. Researchers don’t randomly select questions to explore. Of the many possible questions generated, researchers weed out those that are irrelevant despite being interesting, dead-end questions and those that are too big. Learning to ask good questions takes time. In the inquiry-based classroom, the teacher facilitates the process of asking and answering questions. Often, this involves helping students frame appropriate questions; ones that they have the capacity to successfully answer.

So, the next time a student asks, “Why do I need to learn this?” rather than focus on the answer, address the relationship between ignorance and inquiry. In inquiry-based education, it really is about the journey not the destination.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.