Inquiry-driven project-based learning rocks!

If you lead, coach, or mentor, knowing effective teaching methods help you. People have been learning to teach for thousands of years, so we stand to learn from them.
I recently attended a phenomenal conference on education called EduCon in Philadelphia, co-hosted by longtime friend Chris Lehmann, who founded The Science Leadership Academy, which ranks as one of the most inspirational educational communities I’ve participated in, including several Ivy-League universities.
I had the chance to get a crash course in “inquiry-driven project-based learning,” a style of teaching that focuses on students first, recognizes testing often comes at the cost of learning, and puts engaging the student at the forefront of educating them. It asks the teacher to care about the student and plan teaching with compassion, empathy, and curiosity. Since the conference I’ve researched the style of teaching—people have been using it a long time—and, more importantly, I’ve been practicing it with my class at NYU.
By every measure I can think of for teaching and learning, I have found this style of teaching better than what I grew up learning under, though I recognize several teachers used many elements of this style of teaching. One student already told me my class was the best class she’d ever taken, so there’s one data point.
To understand inquiry-driven project-based learning, I’ve found contrasting it with what I grew up with.

What isn’t inquiry-driven project-based learning?

To prepare a course the way I grew up learning, the teacher focuses on the subject. You think about what you want to teach, collect it into a coherent unit, figure out how to order it into classes, and tell the students what you know. Your job is to get the knowledge you have into the student’s head. You give assignments along the way to make sure they understand what you teach and tests at the end to make sure they got it.
As you prepare the material, you realize you have to know more than just what you teach since you don’t know what questions they might ask, so teaching involves a lot of research too. You learning doesn’t help them, though. It just prepares you better.
That system works to some degree. If I didn’t know of anything better I would use it. I wouldn’t be surprised if for some subjects it worked best. For leadership and entrepreneurship, which I see as fundamentally behavioral, experiential, and social, it misses out on the most important parts of the subjects.

What is inquiry-driven project-based learning?

This style of learning starts with the student, then the subject. If the student isn’t interested in the subject, you can lecture all you want and they’ll only get a fraction of it.
IDPBL starts with engaging the student—that’s part of the inquiry driving everything. You start by finding out what about the student connects with the material you want them to learn. Once the student is engaged, curious, and realizes they can improve their life by learning this subject, then you help guide them toward an activity that uses the material and leads them to learn more about it.
In my course, the first class and some of the second mostly revolved around the students and I sharing what brought us to the course, our interest in it, and our goals to get from it—focusing on the students first.
From there we could tell what each wanted and offered others, since not everyone wanted the same thing. Some want to start tech companies, one a fashion company, some want to create service-based companies, others products, and not all want to start companies. If I taught all of them the same material I’d probably get nothing perfect for anyone. Instead, I gave projects that each could do in their own personal way that would allow them to learn what was relevant to them in as much depth as they wanted, without spending time in parts irrelevant to them, though they could see how everyone else in the class tackled the same project.
I presume how this applies to leading, coaching, and mentoring is obvious. I’m sure I’ll write more on it later.
Also, each student now knows their classmates and their diverse interests. Now when they receive advice they know it comes from a different place and when they give it they know the receiver has different needs. They benefit from their diversity and not get confused by it.
Instead of making up problems for them to work on, I help them create projects that they can work on. Instead of testing them, I have them present their results to each other. Presentations happen outside school. Tests don’t. So presentations help people prepare for life better.
Students can work on projects as much as they like, which makes sense when the project directly connects to their lives and working on it improves their lives. Several students in my class are considering taking to market the entrepreneurial projects they’re working on.
This style of teaching forces me to think about the students’ perspective more. It develops compassion, which motivates more than the threat of a low test score.
Their projects are putting them in touch with people in their lines of business to do business with them, which I expect will create more useful, mutually beneficial relationships than doing well on a test could.
Many of these benefits can come from the type of learning I grew up with, but I haven’t found it happen so consistently and by design.
Anyway, I’ll write more on the subject later.

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