“Why can’t you just tell us what to do?!”

23 Mar

My 11th-12th grade American Lit class just finished up their first full unit with the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP). As I assess their work, I have been thinking a lot about the ups and downs of their learning experience. As I expected, there were several points where students met challenges and where they felt uncomfortable. Looking ahead to the next unit, I thought it might be helpful for me to write a few posts about dealing with challenges of the inquiry process and share some of the strategies I’ve used to help students work through those moments of frustration and doubt.

The first of those moments came when they were developing activities on their own for the first time. They were really struggling with the idea that they have little direction about the final product–what they will ultimately work toward. So, in order to help ease their minds and give them a little insight into the philosophy behind what we were doing in this class, I decided to start one class period with a little troubleshooting session. It went something like this…

Me: Let’s start by taking out the ILP and getting a little more acquainted with the way that the rest of this unit will go. I heard a lot of comments yesterday that you were frustrated or confused, and I want to help alleviate some of that. Most of the questions stemmed from not knowing where you would end up with this unit. That’s something I cannot tell you right now because I don’t know. Normally, in other classes, and even in our first unit, you folks are given an end-of-unit assignment–an essay, a project, a presentation–and you might read a bunch of texts knowing exactly what you’re looking for as you go. By using the ILP, you’re starting with a question – a real one…one you don’t already have an answer to. Now that you have established your question, you’re going to find a variety of resources that will give you information and different perspectives on your topic, but it’s your job to put it all together, connect it to your own experience, and determine what your answer is. Right now, you can’t possibly know what the answer is because you haven’t learned it yet. You haven’t even started reading. After you read your first source, you will have that one person’s perspective on your topic and you’ll be able to extrapolate what that person’s response might be to your question. Then you can build onto it with another perspective, and another, and another, until you have a more complete response.

Student: So, you have no idea what our project will be?

Me: No. It will depend entirely on what you discover.

Student #2: So you don’t know what it will be? I don’t do well with no structure, Miss Stutzman. My other classes, we get an assignment sheet with the final project so we know what to find information for.

Me: The biggest difference between this structure and other structures is discovery. You will not know where you’re going until you get there.

Student #3: We get to decide what this project is. Why can’t you just tell us what to do?

Me: Because this will be a different way of learning. By the end, you will have an understanding that I can almost guarantee you would not have had if we all studied the same thing in the same way at the same time because YOU will determine your direction and YOU will practice the skills that you most need to practice. If we have individualized learning in this way, we cannot have a common final product because you will all go in so many different directions.


To clarify, I asked them to look to the “So What?” section of the ILP and had one student read the requirements aloud:

Now that you’ve developed your skills, learned new information, and gained insights, what are you going to do? This final project should be influenced by the work you’ve completed these past few weeks.

    • First, determine what the main lesson of this unit is. What is your take-away in terms of the texts, standards, and essential questions? Then, decide who needs to know about what you’ve learned. Is there an important skill or lesson you want to share with others? Find an authentic audience and articulate why this person or group of people are the best audience for your lesson. What means will you use to communicate your discoveries?
    • Develop a rationale for your project in which you’ll discuss how your work has inspired you. Using your texts and standards, explain what you’ll do for your project in the space below.
    • Finally, create the product which you’ve outlined in your rationale and share it with your audience!

At that point, I asked what I could clarify for them. I had to restate a few times that I didn’t know what these would look like, but to give them some ideas, I told them about some previous students’ “So What?” artifacts:

  • a speech about a setting’s impact on protagonists and how that shifted from the Romantic to the Realist era
  • a painting demonstration following the realization that emotion impacts the way that artists (including authors) craft a piece of art
  • a letter to the superintendent about school policy changes after a student learned how to write a strong argument
  • a musical score that demonstrated the clash and similarities between two main characters in a play.


Above all, though, I asked them to trust me. I promised them that the process would all make sense once they had some practice with it and had a chance to test out the “So What?” aspect of the plan.


3 Responses to ““Why can’t you just tell us what to do?!””

  1. The Unquiet Librarian March 26, 2014 at 5:15 am #

    If I had a dollar for every time I heard one of my students say that since adopting an inquiry approach in late 2002…I experienced it firsthand as a classroom teacher and then as a media specialist with the three Media 21 cohorts. It is definitely a learning curve for students to adjust to the messiness and uncertainty with this stance on learning. Scaffolding as you are doing as well as patience–on everyone’s part!—definitely help everyone move through this discursive process. I know you know from experience that all the discomfort is worth it as students gain confidence and become invested in designing and engaging in these deeper learning opportunities. Thank you for sharing! Best, Buffy

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