Wednesday, May 18, 2011

And suddenly, the inquiry evaporated!

Just like that, I was jumping through hoops, figuring out how to come up with fancy sounding answers and not really knowing what they meant. "Uh oh," I thought. Back away. Figure out what's good here, and what it's good for.

That was a close call.

I'm working on the new architecture for the Virtual Fieldwork Database, and I also am working on better understanding the geology of where we'll be doing our professional development workshops this summer. It seemed like a natural pairing. I think it is, but danger lurks in making things formulaic. It's needed, of course, to manage the work of classrooms, the work of scores of learners. But it is dangerous, at least if you want to foster critical thinking.

Here's the current draft of the VFE Database Entry Form. The fields in the form correspond to fields in the database. You can go ahead and play with it, but know that I may delete the whole thing as I work and rework the framework. It's a work in progress, so feedback is very much welcome.

Making a database that includes the kind of things you figure out about field sites makes good sense. It will be a powerful tool for comparing and contrasting field sites to one another. It will be sortable and color-coded and all kinds of cool things.

But don't let labeling things replace understanding things. As teachers and as learners we do that far too often. See the Traxoline Quiz (html) (pdf) for a powerful (if sort of silly) example. You can get every question right and have no clue what it's about (if it's about anything at all).

I was plugging stuff into the database about San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park, where we'll be doing a workshop this June. We've still got some space -- apply here soon!

I was tracking down my sources, and entering in my information -- that the rock ranged in age from Middle Jurassic to Late Cretaceous and that the rock types included tonalite and quartz diorite, for example. That's when my "uh oh" moment hit me. Good hoop jumpers can add correct information to the database as easily as they can ace the Traxoline Quiz.

I wasn't letting our driving question: Why does this place look the way it does? do the driving. I was letting the (still emerging) structure of the database do the driving. Oops.

One of my most heavily used soundbites related to the project is that field trips, whether actual or virtual are too often characterized by teachers pointing things out rather than kids figuring things out. And I was headed down the wrong path. That doesn't mean that it's a fool's errand though. But it does mean that I need we need to be careful as we work to prepare our virtual (or actual) fieldwork experiences.

My gut says that key to avoiding this pitfall is to make sure that the database, or at least the entry of data about the site into the database, comes well into the experience for the learners. It's valuable for the learners to explore the field site with wonder on their mind. Of course a prescribed approach will need to come in eventually if we want to reach a point where the learner can read landscapes they've not seen before, and that's at least part of what we're after. My gut says if we rush that goal too much we simply won't get there. My gut also says that our driving question is a pretty darn good driver and I ought to let her drive.

What does your gut tell you?

Don Duggan-Haas


  1. I think that the form allows teachers to have the background information that they will need. They should let the students investigate without giving away the answers, but it is usually helpful to know a little bit more than your students. Sometimes, it isn't necessary, and that is what inquiry is all about - the teacher doesn't need to know everything, as they explore and discover together, but some teachers don't feel comfortable with that at all. They want to know and don't want to admit they have no idea what the answer is.

  2. I made a shortened version of the URL: