“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 4: Inquiry

An Introduction to the World of Discovery….
by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

“We carry with us the wonders we seek without us. There is all
Africa and her prodigies in us; we are that bold and adventurous
part of Nature, which he that studies widely learns in a compendium

what others labor at in a divided piece and endless volume.”

Sir Thomas Browne
Religio Medici

We are, indeed, the wonders that we seek. To discover them, we must look deep within ourselves, to that part which can reach out to the world and comprehend it. Then release ourselves to know.
scatonrcOdd, that we must release what’s within us to know what is outside. Traveling within is a process, best taken a step at a time. Enough steps taken, and your teaching will change.

The change flows from a tack in perspective, a paradigm shift, if you will, that presents you with a new, very functional and accessible view of teaching: what it ought to be, what it can be. But, like discovering your inner self, you don’t get there by hearing about it; you have to make the journey yourself.

Start by going into the world. Reflect on the difference between how it looks and how school looks and how textbooks, handouts, and applications look. When you engage that change in perspective, school, textbooks, handouts, and applications will look like the real world, the extension of the world beyond the classroom that they ought to be.

If you spent some time in a place like those I described in my last blog, you may have had a moment when you wanted to know something; the name of a plant, what that stuff encrusting the branches of a tree was, etc. These ‘Needs to Know’ emerged from engagement with a place, and may have influenced your view of this place as classroom – your new perspective. They are the vehicle which makes publishers’ materials, and your classroom, relevant and useful extensions of the real world. The world outside drives you into the books and into learning.

How often do we give our students concepts to memorize, and then tear our hair out when they can’t think their way through them?  Science is touted to be the subject which teaches critical thinking.  Do we enable it to do that, or do we eschew this role of our discipline?  Going into the Real world for curriculum gets you and your students into the larger community and environment where they can reach out, touch what they find, and incorporate it into what is already there in their brains. I call going into the world outside the classroom “Community and Environment Based Education,” CEBE for short.

If you’ve never experienced it, the thought of teaching a CEBE curriculum can be intimidating. We all experience a sense of uneasiness when we try something new. Taking simple, positive steps is how we overcome inertia in the face of what we perceive as difficult. You’ll find that doubt dissolves as soon as you engage a familiar content. If you made a casual observation, you probably noticed this.

How do you gain the confidence it takes to enjoy teaching CEBE learning? First, learn what it is. CEBE learning is an inquiry process that produces facts, but it is not the facts themselves. Inquiry, itself, is not a book of facts; it is a cognitive-kinesthetic process, a way of knowing, a way of organizing your thoughts and actions. Here are four basic pieces of the process: 1) ask a question in your environment or community, 2) decide how you might answer it, 3) follow through on this decision, and 4) compare the results of following through with the question that you asked. This is manageable, and, with a little support, you’ll find that you can do it. Let’s work our way through this, one step at a time. We have time.

We can’t ask a question until we know something about the topic of our inquiry. This is one of the critical problems with publishers’ inquiries. They start with a question or hypothesis about something you’ve never experienced. To ask a question, you have to know something about the thing you’re questioning. We don’t start right out with our magnifying glasses and a Burning Question. To begin, we’ll just go out and get a feel for how Inquiry works. A good place to start is to engage in finding something out. This is one of the most difficult pieces of inquiry, because it is tenuous, and where you go is up to you. You’ll be a little uncomfortable for awhile. Assume that you’ll find something of interest and develop a good inquiry. As you work, you’ll occasionally feel uncertain, and want to be advised by some authority. Be assured that this is your inquiry, and you have the capacity to make decisions about what to do.

Start with something to find out. Go to a place that interests you and walk through it. Let yourself relax in this place. Don’t focus on any particular thing, but let parts of the place come to you as you walk. They will, if you let them. For example, let’s say you notice plants seem to act as habitat for animals. Now you have something to think about. Look closely. Write notes about what you notice. Comment on anything that you find of interest. Spend at least 20 minutes doing this as you walk around. It may become quite involved. If it does, have faith that you can sort it out.

Keep track of how you feel about this, especially your sense of autonomy. Whenever we do something, we have a thing I call our ‘Locus of Control’ that goes with the doing. Bend your arm at a right  angle and close your fist. Move your fist away from your body, keeping your elbow against your ribs and your lower arm parallel to the ground. If you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, and the authority for that comes from you, move your fist as close to the center of your abdomen, next to the spine, as your skin and muscles will allow. This indicates a locus of control which resides within a person; where the person is the authority for her thoughts and actions.

If you’re following directions, but aren’t comfortable enough to act on your own decisions about the work, move your fist into the air before you; move it to a distance which seems to reflect your comfort with being the authority for the work you are doing. Make sure you understand this idea of a locus of control. It’s importnt to move your locus of control from outside yourself to inside you. We’ll revisit the concept from time to time.

Later, look over your notes. What did you notice that was interesting to you? Were there any patterns? Anything unusual? Describe that, and what about it caught your interest. Of the things you described, which would you like to know more about? Later, you will use this to focus your inquiry question. Jot down any questions your observations, thoughts, or notes raised. Then think of how you might use this piece to start a lesson in the classroom, lab, schoolyard, neighborhood, some topic you will cover in the next two weeks.

Next, we’ll work on asking a clear, succinct inquiry question. This is a tough job, but not as personally difficult as going to a place and finding something to question. If you have children of your own, how might they grow with this kind of experience? Your students?


This is the fourth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that will explore how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here.