Everyone has a moment when past experiences tumble together and point the way forward. For Kimberly Mitchell, that happened in 2005, as she stood in front of a crowd of suburban schoolteachers who folded their arms across their chests in disgust, as Mitchell tried to explain her concept of “inquiry-based” classroom instruction.
“You’re giving us nothing,” one said.
Mitchell, a former teacher and assistant principal at Chief Sealth High School, had traveled to California to preach her belief in the transformative power of an approach to education that features less teacher-talking and a lot more listening. But she was an outsider, a mouthpiece, more noise in the clatter of education reform.
“People like you come here all the time and talk to us about ‘inquiry,’ and we never know what you’re talking about,” the same teacher griped. So Mitchell had to act out what she meant — in a classroom, with kids, as the teachers watched. It terrified her. And it changed everything.
The basics to improving education are not based on increased testing or improved curricula, as Mitchell sees it, but on five practices:
- Getting personal — that is, telling students why you teach algebra; using your own life to explain your passion for a subject.
- Asking questions and talking less, because research shows that when students verbalize their thoughts, they learn.
- Citing sources, evaluating evidence and guiding students to do the same — the hallmarks of critical thinking.
- Remaining neutral at correct answers because when students don’t know exactly what their teacher wants, they take more risks.
- Slowing down. “Real learning is clumsy and time consuming,” Mitchell says. “It’s not about calling on the first kid to raise his hand.”
The value of these strategies, all backed by evidence that they improve learning, became clear to Mitchell, a lifelong Seattlite, through her work with the International Baccalaureate program. (All, incidentally, have been key to school improvements highlighted in several Education Lab features.)
Several school and parent groups, including the Washington State PTA, have already sought training from Mitchell and her fledgling company, InquiryPartners, founded with two other educators who have children in the Seattle Public Schools.
Some may look askance at Mitchell’s resume: She worked at Teach for America (the bane of many teachers unions); voted for charter schools (ditto) and spent four years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a powerful supporter of education reform.
Mitchell understands that she will be viewed with skepticism. But she believes the arguments now fracturing education are centered on political differences around testing and curricula. Successful teaching techniques, by contrast, might be one arena in which everyone can unite.
“My mother always said, ‘Questions unite us, answers divide us.’ And I believe that about schools,” Mitchell said. “They should not be places of answers, but places of great questions.”