Inquiry: For Teachers Asking Good Questions Is as Important as Learning the Answers

by Leanne Star

20th anniversary keynote speaker Alex Kotlowitz signs one of his best-selling books for MSEd alumni Meg Cashion
20th anniversary keynote speaker Alex Kotlowitz signs one of his best-selling books for MSEd alumni Meg Cashion.

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Photo by Pat Rodriguez

This summer's 20th anniversary celebration of the Master of Science in Education Program (MSEd) emphasized the key to teacher education at Northwestern: Inquiry.

On Saturday, May 8, 2004, when MSEd students, alumni, faculty and staff gathered on campus to celebrate the program's 20-year history, the focus was on the tradition of inquiry and discussion of provocative questions.

For program director Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, exploring questions is crucial. She was an early advocate for a student-centered method of education based on asking questions. "Inquiry," she says, "is at the heart of everything we do at the School of Education and Social Policy" (which makes it a perfect name for this magazine). "We all share a focus on questioning, understanding meaning."

One way to understand how inquiry works is to contrast it with conventional approaches to teaching. "There's an old-school understanding that students are empty vessels just waiting to have information poured into them," says Aviva Pearlman (MSEd03), a teacher at Deerpath Middle School in Lake Forest, Illinois. "My kids are bubbling over with curiosity. My job is to get them to talk about that."

George Austin (MS94), a teaching assistant at Francis Parker High School in Chicago, puts it this way: "Inquiry isn't a method of disseminating information from an authority source. The actual source of the information is the interaction with the material. For me," says Austin, "the goal of inquiry is for students to develop and construct knowledge on their own."

Students do that by asking what inquiry advocates call "genuine" questions. "Students pursue questions that they are genuinely eager to answer," says Haroutunian-Gordon. "Contrast a teacher telling what a text means with a teacher bringing questions for the group to address that she doesn't know the answer to."

Haroutunian-Gordon does not shy away from addressing the difficulties of using the inquiry method. "Preparing for discussion takes time, and it's not easy," she says. "But the rewards of inquiry are far greater than the drawbacks. School can be more exciting because of it."

Aspiring teachers who may be unfamiliar with the inquiry method experience it firsthand in Northwestern's teacher education programs. Joan Trimuel, a graduate of the higher education administration and policy program and an audit supervisor at Northwestern, says, "In our classes, professors always come back to 'What do you think?' For a while, it made me very uncomfortable because I wasn't used to that approach. Here was someone asking me for my own personal opinion - and the fact that my opinion was truly valued was astounding to me."

Northwestern's other teacher education programs, including the undergraduate secondary education major and advanced teacher certificates are inquiry-based, as is NU- TEACH (Teacher Education Alternative for Chicago). This innovative program was begun in 1998 as a partnership among the University, the Golden Apple Foundation, the Inner-City Teacher Corps and the Chicago Public Schools and appeals to career-changers eager to get into classrooms more quickly than pursuing the 15-course MSEd program [see Inquiry, spring 2000].

In all these teacher education programs, inquiry is the common thread. But it is more than that: it is the dynamic that drives the School of Education and Social Policy. "A lot of programs may talk about inquiry," acknowledges Haroutunian-Gordon, "but what makes us distinct at Northwestern is that we live it."

Leanne Star is a freelance writer.
By Leanne Star