Inquiry as Inception

By | August 14, 2010

If you haven’t yet seen the brilliant film “Inception“, I highly recommend checking it out. It is probably the best movie I have seen in years.

What is Inception?

The process of inception is to place an idea in someone’s head so deep that they think they came up with it themselves.  Since our brains can naturally trace foreign ideas back to their origin, for an idea to really “take,” you have to plant the simplest version of that idea, and hope that it grows into the real thing.

A Chemistry Example

If I tell my students that Robert Boyle discovered that there was an inversely proportional relationship between pressure and volume, a certain percentage of them will be able to regurgitate it back to me on a test.  No matter how many practice problems we do, or how well we complete confirmation labs, the idea about the relationship between pressure and volume will ultimately be traced back to Boyle, or (worse) the teacher.  The idea will be subject to the typical binge and purge of test preparation, and by the time the final rolls around, they’ll have to relearn Boyle’s law as if it had never been taught.

If, instead, I began a discussion with the following demo:

we now have a simple, engaging starting point upon which students can determine a qualitative relationship between pressure and volume, and ultimately derive a quantitative relationship through further experimentation. By introducing motivation and ownership, students can obtain a greater and more lasting understanding of P vs V without ever hearing the name Boyle.

Come on, Ms. Bethea. “Inception” is just a fiction movie

True enough.  But there is a scientific basis to the effectiveness of inquiry and motivation on learning.

Brain research has shown that there is a limited amount of working memory that students can access and use. Without motivation, or an integration or synthesis of knowledge, small, disconnected facts are ultimately dismissed. If you consider that most people have 5-9 “working memory slots” available, poor Boyle, along with dozens of other seemingly random facts from other classes, will take the back seat to other things teenagers frequently think about in their daily lives.  Like 90% of short term memory, it could very well be discarded within 24 hours.

When students are motivated, they are more willing to allocate more working memory slots to a task.  Motivation increases ability to process, integrate and understand information.  If multiple ideas can be connected through context, the working memory slots can be expanded. And when facts are given meaning, relevance, and context, students are able to more easily move these ideas into long-term memory.  And, as DiCaprio’s character states, once an idea gets in there, like a parasite, it’s almost impossible to get out.

Teachers as Architects

It isn’t enough to merely stick a marshmallow man into a vacuum chamber and disappear into the shadows.  The most difficult aspect of implementing inquiry is shaping the student experience so that it feels authentic, without being micromanaged.   We have to guide our questioning  without pointing them to an exact answer. We must introduce tools and techniques without implying a specified outcome. We must allow failures encountered to ultimately guide successes.  We should make (or facilitate making) connections between previously studied topics. And as hard as it may be, we must resist the urge to lose patience and jump in to plant the full idea.

Our task as teachers is, in the context of full curriculum and standards,  to figure out which ideas and topics are worthy of inception. Outside of course content, we can provide opportunities for students to shape their experiences in our classroom (student-made class rules and rubrics). We can model learning, rather than tell students exactly how to study. Students can be inspired to collaborate by observing our own successful collaborations.

Ultimately, we must create an environment where students feel safe and supported enough to direct their own learning.


Frank Noschese on August 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm.

So I am finally commenting…

This is a great analogy! I’m sure you know that this is called “seeding” in modeling instruction. It’s a great way to get student groups to share different insights with the whole class without it coming from you.

Dwain Desbien’s PhD thesis was about managing discourse in the modeling classroom. Here’s a section from his thesis about seeding:


Ms. Bethea on August 22, 2010 at 3:31 pm.

Thanks for sharing the link!


Mark Hammond on August 30, 2010 at 9:13 pm.

Getting the students talking and discussing is key. But also, getting them to explain how they have used the discovery they have made is really key. I love to ask “How do you know that?” For instance, a student says, “Well, if the acceleration has doubled, the net force has doubled,” ask “How do you know that?” A good student will answer “An object’s acceleration is proportional to the net force exerted on it.” “How do you know that?” Typically the answer is “Newton’s Second Law” (or worse “you told us”). But then ask “How do you know that?” once again… long pause… “We measured it!” “How did we measure it?” “We got some springs and … ” You get the idea. I borrowed this idea from Sakichi Toyoda’s “five whys” method of dissecting quality problems. I love the way this works… I just have to be patient and remember to keep asking “how do we know…” Easier said than done.


Ms. Bethea on August 31, 2010 at 6:52 am.

Follow-up questions is where I still struggle, but it is very important. Thanks for your comment!



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