Saturday, 2 February 2013

Why Inquiry? RAD

I met Dr. Judy Willis a few years ago, when she presented her RAD ideas to science teachers and professional developers at Middle Tennessee State University. In order to share her research at later PD sessions, I summarized it, and I want to share the handout that accompanied my sessions with you. (It was sent to her for approval first.)

Her story is unique: "Dr. Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist in Santa Barbara, California, has combined her 15 years as a practicing adult and child neurologist with her teacher education training and years of classroom experience. After five years teaching at Santa Barbara Middle School, and ten years of classroom teaching all together, in 2010, Dr. Willis reluctantly left teaching middle school students and dedicated herself full-time to teaching educators."

Why Inquiry? 

All children are born scientists who learn about the world around them through exploration and discovery. 

Inquiry learning is twice as efficient as “drill and kill.” It builds content knowledge, understanding, and reasoning
  • It increases students’ engagement so they develop knowledge conceptually 
  • Students construct understanding through investigations rather than by rote memory. 
  • Students develop reasoning skills that enable them to handle open-ended tasks, to think creatively, and to make decisions rationally. 
Even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed.

I. Lessons should be organized to engage students’ brains in order for them to acquire content knowledge. 

Our planning should revolve around this question: “How can my students use inquiry to acquire knowledge and develop understanding so that knowledge can be applied to other areas of their learning and their lives?” 

During inquiry activities, YOU facilitate as YOUR STUDENTS make meaning for themselves; you may need to provide direct instruction at multiple points during an inquiry-based unit.


The goal of our teaching is that acquired information gets to the conscious, cognitive brain so that new learning reaches long-term memory and becomes useable, transferable knowledge.

To reach the “conscious brain,” sensory input must be Reticular Activating System “selected.” The reactive brain responds to stimuli with fight/flight/freeze.

We must get past that filter with stability and familiarity, and then captivate R.A.S. attention/stimulate curiosity with

  • Change, novelty, surprise 
  • Prior knowledge activation 
  • Advertising 
  • Color, costumes 
  • Music, movement 
  • Discrepant events 

Some ideas to make your lessons R.A.S. selected:

  • Walk backwards into and around the room before beginning a discussion about negative numbers 
  • Put on a “thinking cap” to indicate that what comes next is very important 
  • Show a book trailer to stimulate interest in a novel before reading it. 
  • Use color-coded highlighters for labeling key words, important points, etc. 
  • Set up a think-pair-share or a jigsaw so students know they will be doing something with information they gain during a reading/listening activity 
  • Start with a current or local event – anything that promotes “buy-in” 
  • Alert students to information that connects with their personally valued goals 


The Amygdala responds to interest, relevance, and pleasure. Students (or people) who are in a positive emotional state have an open amygdala leading directly to the prefrontal cortex, where long-term memory resides. Students who are stressed have no passage to the prefrontal cortex. Brain scans show a direct path to the prefrontal cortex during a happy state and no activation of the passage to the prefrontal cortex during sadness, anger, or fear.

Causes of school stress include

  • Being embarrassed to read aloud 
  • Anxiety about taking tests 
  • Physical and language differences 
  • Bullying and cliques 
  • Frustration with material that is too difficult – zone of proximal development 
  • Boredom - many children have been robbed of the joy of successful learning because of boredom caused by teach-to-the-test rote memorization. 

The greatest fear reported by students is making a mistake in a whole-class setting. Supportive classrooms are those where students feel safe enough to take the risk of participating and being “smart”...and even risk making mistakes! 

Inquiry is de-stressing.
  • It builds a classroom learning community that invites participation by all students. 
  • It connects with prior knowledge. 
  • It invites pleasurable engagement through prediction. 
  • It provides learning practice where students learn to use their reflective rather than reactive brain networks. 

The Dopamine response is inspiration, motivation, curiosity, creativity, persistence, and perseverance. Dopamine is released when we are given choices as well as when we are moving, collaborating, enjoying music, and feeling self-appreciation. The results are acting kindly, interacting well with friends, expressing gratitude, and feeling optimistic.

Choice = ownership on the part of the learner 
Group learning increases dopamine and builds pleasure-associated memories

Acetylcholine Bonus – When dopamine levels are high, acetylcholine is released and “ enhancing the response to sensory input, high levels of acetylcholine enhance attention to the enhancing the response to external input, high levels of acetylcholine enhance the encoding of memory for specific stimuli, allowing more effective and accurate encoding of sensory events.” ~Michael E. Hasselmo & Jill McGaughy, Dept. of Psychology, Center for Memory and Brain, Boston University

Consolidation occurs in the hippocampus, where new information is encoded with previously stored related knowledge:

If it is isolated, 
it isn’t consolidated. 
It MUST be related! 

Patterning is matching prior knowledge to new information to encode new memory. Long-term memories are made through pattern construction in the brain – Piaget’s “schema” are mental maps or categories of knowledge that grow through pattern association. Good inquiries don’t have a simple, single answer (just like real life) - they encourage students to recognize and build patterns, thus connecting new information into their brains’ neural wiring. 

II. Unless something is done with a new memory, it is lost in less than a minute. Relational memories are turned into understanding (and stored in long-term memory) by mental manipulation in the prefrontal cortex. 

John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience, 

we learn by reflecting on it.” 

“Dend-writes” for mental manipulation 

  • Draw a picture, diagram, or graphic organizer of what you learned. 
  • React to the most surprising thing you learned today. 
  • Reflect on how something you learned connects to something you already knew. 
  • Predict what will come next. 
  • Make a note of what is still confusing to you. 
  • Write about a new/better understanding that you have. 
  • Describe a strategy you used to solve a problem today. 
  • Describe a “so what” – the one thing you’ll remember most about today’s lesson. 
  • Write about how this lesson connects to things you learn in other subjects. 
  • Compare/contrast, categorize, or summarize an aspect of the lesson. 
  • Create an analogy that explains what this lesson reminded you about or how it fits with what you already knew. 
You can use your students’ dend-writes to:
  • Know how accurately the lesson was understood 
  • Correct any misperceptions at the next class meeting 
  • Ask students whose responses were especially good to share those insights with the class as review or to promote discussion. 
  • Post good responses as “back-pats” 

III. Inquiry-centered learning builds reasoning skills or “executive functions.”
The prefrontal cortex is only about 15% of the brain’s volume; we have to make it count! Our goal is to turn information into usable, transferable knowledge. 

The brain’s executive functions include
  • Judgment 
  • Prioritizing 
  • Analyzing information 
  • Decision making 
  • Goal planning 
  • Organizing 
  • Inferring 
  • Synthesizing 
  • Integrating 
  • Problem-solving 
Call it HOTS, critical thinking, or whatever you like...this is our goal!

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