Dennis Smithenry was teaching chemistry at York High School in Elmhurst not quite 20 years ago when something about his classes began to bother him.
“My students were looking to me to do too much of the intellectual work,” said Smithenry, now an associate professor of education at Elmhurst. Too often, his students turned to him for step-by-step guidance to solve problems posed in the lab, as if they were following a recipe. “And science is not a recipe,” he said.
Smithenry wanted his students to work their own way through problems, not as individuals but as a scientific team. He wanted to replicate in a high school classroom the kind of collaborative environment he had known working in corporate research and development laboratories earlier in his career.
So, teaming with another York science teacher, Joan Gallagher-Bolos, Smithenry began to put what he calls “our big idea” into practice. Gallagher-Bolos and Smithenry began teaching chemistry using what they called a “whole-class inquiry” curriculum. Their approach aimed to get entire classes of students working together as a team to solve problems in scientifically valid ways.
“We wanted to create a miniature scientific community in the classroom, where students would collaborate just as scientists do in the real world,” said Smithenry.
Some two decades on, having left the high school classroom to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry and an academic career in science education, he’s still working on his big idea. Smithenry spent part of a postdoctoral year at Stanford University tracking the progress of high school chemistry classes taught by Gallagher-Bolos at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook. He saw classes of nearly two dozen students debating lab procedures, reaching consensus, dividing into work teams and solving problems—all under Gallagher-Bolos’s watchful eye, but often with minimal intervention from her.
What Smithenry observed in Northbrook further convinced him that the approach he and Gallagher-Bolos had developed would work—not just in their classrooms, but in schools large and small, rural and urban. The result was Whole-Class Inquiry: Creating Student-Centered Science Communities (National Science Teachers Association Press, 2009), a practical guide to encouraging teamwork and cooperative problem solving in high school science classrooms. His research was funded by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
The book, which received a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of Educational Publishers in 2010, walks teachers through a year’s worth of chemistry topics and projects. It comes with two DVDs that take viewers inside one of Gallagher-Bolos’s classrooms to see the whole-class inquiry method at work. One of the most remarkable things about the video scenes is how often Gallagher-Bolos remains conspicuously silent. The students are directing their own efforts.
“Teachers tell us, ‘I want my classroom to look like that,’” Smithenry said. “You can see how much these students want to solve problems and how much they want to get to work in the lab.”
Of course, teachers must still help their students develop the skills and strategies needed for scientific collaboration, Smithenry said. But once mastered, those skills pay off for students not just in one class, but in others, as well. In a paper published in the journal Science Education in October, Smithenry wrote that students who had learned whole-class inquiry methods in a chemistry class were later able to apply those methods in a physics class. The veterans of the whole-class approach were better able to communicate with peers, work collaboratively and conduct scientific work in their physics class than classmates who had not experienced whole-class inquiry methods, Smithenry wrote.
For Smithenry, those findings offer more evidence that it is indeed possible to create the kind of scientific community he envisioned as a high school teacher nearly 20 years ago.
“It’s satisfying to see that this really can make an impact on students,” Smithenry said. “These students aren’t just learning a list of facts. They’re mirroring what scientists do. They’re learning how to collaborate.”