Structuring an inquiry-based classroom in the 21st century
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Stay Thirsty My Students: Alexander Von Humboldt - The world’s most interesting scientist. (c. 1804)
I couldn't help having images of the "World's most interesting man" from the Dos Equis television commercials in my mind as I read about Alexander Von Humboldt. Von Humboldt was a champion of inquiry and science. In his time he truly was the world's most interesting man. Read on.
I was given a copy of Alain de Bottons The Art of Travel recently and had been trudging through its essays this summer. In this collection, De Botton develops his views on travel by exploring the perspectives of some intellectual greats in western history. Each essay left me somewhat unsatisfied until I came across On Curiosity.
On Curiosity mirrors De Botton’s own lethargic, travel-book guided approach to experiencing Madrid one weekend to that of Alexander Von Humboldt, the German scientist/explorer. Von Humboldt explored South America from 1799-1804.
De Botton describes Von Humboldt as a relentless explorer in the name of science who traveled unknown lands, never fearful of what lied next. Driven by his curiosities, he gained heaps of information and facts about different plants, animals, peoples, geology, and geography of South America. His interests were not confined to any particular discipline or expectation as he wondered, questioned, collected data and conceptualized.
De Botton also writes about how Von Humboldt’s inquiring ways as a child were supported by his parents. They bought him a microscope, books about nature, hired tutors who understood botany, and hung pictures he drew of plants on their walls. Von Humboldt was obsessed with knowing more about the natural world at a very young age and he had the means to do so.
After his 5-year journey he returned to Europe in 1804. Many people of higher influence in the scientific community and general society pursued him to hear about his experience and findings. Like a modern day rock star he was sought out wherever he went.
“He once travelled 15000 km around a territory virtually unknown to any other European.”
“He traversed the (once thought to be) world’s highest mountain.”
“He formulated laws on how flora and fauna were shaped by climate and geography.”
“…and he did it with that same too-cool-for-school look present on his face in every image included in the essay.”
“He is the world’s most interesting scientist.”
The only thing that was missing from the portraits of Von Humboldt was a tavern, a bar table, an entourage of admirers, and goblets of his favorite ale.
All joking aside, accounts of Alexander Von Humboldt’s exploits and his drive for discovering new facts, heights and territory are inspiring to anyone who has curiosities but are reluctant to pursue them. Reading this has led me to reflect on how I should approach travel and how what I should be reminded of when teaching.
Travel: Having travelled to nearly 30 countries, I have often bought guidebooks and read information before even really asking questions about the place I am traveling to. In the beginning, a Lonely Planet would guide me through unchartered waters. After awhile however, I should be more apt at making comparisons from country to country, history to history, and culture to culture to the point where I can let my own questions be my guidebook. Rather than passively travel through a country by rote, I should pass through a country by inquiry.
Teaching: I remember a time around the age of 7 when I was obsessed with ants. I collected them, I tried to tame them, corral them and force them to walk pre-determined lines by trenching out mini pathways which wouldn’t work. I would even try baiting them with sugared water trails. I would cut parts of their bodies to see what they could survive with out. I had formatted various types of fighting matches between the three different species to determine the strongest one. I did all these things because I truly wondered what the results would be. I still think about those days fondly. I didn’t do it in school; I did it for hours in my own backyard. Imagine what I would have discovered with a little bit of guidance in a program of inquiry.
A comparable memory is when I had to force myself to study for high school physics and chemistry exams out of my notes and textbooks, an arduous and un-engaging experience.
Having your own questions in travel and in learning will take you furthest. Guidebooks and textbooks just might weigh you down.
Which type of experience will stick with my young learners?
Read “On Curiosity”. It will inspire you towards inquisitiveness and perseverance in travel, teaching and learning. Keep it in mind as you teach your students. You might just inspire them to become the world’s most interesting scientist someday.
Stay thirsty my students!
Botton, Alain De. "On Curiosity." The Art of Travel. New York: Pantheon, 2002.
PYP Grade 4 Teacher