The Value of Inquiry—the Art of Failure

March 29, 2016

Inquiry is a style of teaching and learning in which the process of learning is valued as much, if not more, than the end product. When students learn through inquiry they practice asking questions, thinking critically, and productive collaboration all while deepening content knowledge and learning through experiences that can be clearly connected to their lives. The skills that students learn in an inquiry-based classroom are ones that set them up for both college and career by giving them a method to approach problems, tasks or assignments.

Of all of the skills that students learn in an inquiry-based classroom, one of the most important is learning to fail. In inquiry, students are asked to ask questions, do research, and draw conclusions. In some cases the conclusion they come to is that their initial thinking was wrong. Students might build a model, solve a problem, or do an experiment that doesn’t succeed.

In an inquiry classroom they learn that trying again, being wrong or even failure are a normal and incredibly important part of learning.

Learning through inquiry is an active process where students ask questions and make connections. If the questions that students investigate, and the paths they take to solve problems are student-driven, the results aren’t going to be right every time, rather students will be confronted by the fact that very few things are actually correct on the first try (why would newspapers have editors, or scientists devote their life’s work to a single problem, otherwise?).

As students fail, the role of the teacher is to help them to think about where the problems in their process/idea/product may lie, helping them to ask the right questions, to reason careful and practice reflection such that their next attempt at the task may bring a different result. Teachers can ask questions to prompt thinking, provide feedback that can move thinking forward, and connect students to appropriate resources while also giving them enough room to truly be making choices of their own, to make mistakes, and to be wrong. Students might not like this, especially at first, because many are used to just being able to fail and move on, or fail and be told the right answer. Failure is uncomfortable, but it can ultimately lead to deeper student understanding as well as improvements in resiliency and patience, all of which are worthwhile pursuits.

Learning is a cycle, and learning through inquiry helps make this cycle more visible to students. When students can try, fail, and then be given the right answer they are not being prepared for the ‘real-world’ where presentations are constantly edited, where experiments must be repeated, or where solutions to difficult problems often don’t work as planned. Through the process of inquiry, students build valuable skills that will impact them both in school and life—the ability to think critically, to reason carefully, to evaluate, analyze and synthesize, to question and hypothesize, to be resilient and determined (if things don’t work, figure out what went wrong and try again!). Teaching students that failure is an option, and how to overcome it, is one of the best gifts they can be given.

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