A missing piece for education in the United States: Moving from an industrial to an inquiry-based paradigm

Editor’s note: This article is part of Fordham’s 2022 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to answer an important and challenging question: “How can states remove the barriers that prevent teachers from re-entering high schools?” learn more.

When it comes to education, the United States is looking for solutions. Every week it reveals a Sisyphean phenomenon by repeating the headlines: Students from poor communities in the US continue to lag behind their peers around the world. If you read the headlines alone, teachers and students find themselves in persistent decline on standardized tests – state and national – and reflected in the 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). These issues continue without clear answers about how to change this potentially transformative system.

However, a change in attitude is taking place. This change is new to America’s schools, but it is necessary if we are to achieve global change. The shift is away from the “Industrial Age paradigm” and toward a student-centered, inquiry-based mindset.

Inquiry-based learning styles are antithetical to the Industrial Age educational philosophy. As noted in a recent report Outside the Box: How Learning Models Can Transform K-12 Education, what we are doing in the classrooms is not working on the scale. High expectations, the belief of each student, and high standards are the main strategies, but these strategies miss what the research, and many teachers, say should be done: Get away from direct, inconsistent, and monolithic instruction, and instead, keep learning learning. Referring to the report:

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Our national decision is clear: We can continue to explain the change as it has been for the last forty years – enthusiastically admit that industrial education is still the best way to provide education and evaluate the optimization of its results by trying to gradually increase its main products. Or we can consider the possibility that the industrial paradigm is the one that needs to change. Although it was created more than a century ago, its death has greatly reduced the efforts aimed at improving the system. Overcoming these inherent limitations requires a modern revolution—developing a new concept of education that essentially reimagines the classroom so that each student can reach their full potential. (page 17)

We at the International Baccalaureate Organization (IB) agree. Learning by inquiry and learning how to learn have been central to the IB’s curriculum for over fifty years, starting with the Diploma Programme. Significant research shows that inquiry-based learning is a powerful tool: Students become interested in their interests, solve problems they identify with, and learn the habits and skills to do this for themselves.

Education has often been an exercise, with a static curriculum that ignores the strengths and needs of young learners; This method is no longer acceptable in today’s class and economy. Although recent reforms have increased school accountability, assessment methods that promote traditional skills promote unmotivated learning. Inquiry-based courses are now available at nearly 2,000 International Baccalaureate schools in the United States and more than 5,600 worldwide. The expansion of the last ten years of the IB’s Career-Related Program provides an intensive way to graduate that emphasizes personal skills and abilities and the ability to accelerate preparation for post-secondary education at the same time as a jump-start to a career and reputation. We’ve had students become chefs, automotive engineers, computer scientists, and even medical professionals because of their work experience, and transferable skills to whatever career paths our students choose to pursue after graduation. Why? The Work-related program is college-oriented and career-oriented, as it is based on research-based learning concepts, and it also prepares students for the market.

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Like Out of the Box The report said, it takes time, commitment, and real leadership to break old habits embedded in the Industrial Age DNA of schools and start asking questions. Transformational change takes time, but the IB and other new learning approaches show that school change is possible, especially if inquiry-based learning is the foundation from elementary through high school.

The International Baccalaureate offers a training base: courses related to the questions already mentioned, along with an evaluation process to evaluate students and schools to adhere to strict principles, professional development that makes the student central to education, to improve the school’s sustainability. self-reflection and continuous improvement to meet the aspirations of world-class education, and leadership training to make it all happen.

Policy ideas can accelerate change. In the federal, state, and donor sectors, funding for modified education is the fastest way to do this. Second, policies allowing flexibility in assessment are important. We know that, as the results of accountability motivate school leaders and teachers, how lean is measured drives what is being taught. As a former inspector general at the IB said: “What you try is what you get.” Schools adopting new learning methods should not be constrained by industry scrutiny. In New York State, the Performance Learning and Assessment Pilot (PLAN) is an excellent example of a state taking leadership on this important issue, using the IB to help reform graduation requirements. Several other countries encourage students to focus on the IB diploma, which focuses on research, as an alternative to high school. These forward-thinking countries also provide incentives to accept the academic challenges of IB courses by awarding students with college scholarships at their state colleges. Third, the U.S. can foster change through institutionalization and empowerment, as well as other ways to re-engineer and innovate.

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Leading change, especially in schools that want to break the mold, is difficult. Policy development and evaluation to transition from an Industrial Age model of schooling to a research model is critical to the transformation of schools around the world. With such a culture, the United States can turn the page from being forever neglected to becoming a world leader in public education.


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