Equipping the Inquiry Classroom

I’m really tired of bumping my head on the cabinets in my kitchen when I wash the dishes. The genius who designed it (not me!) obviously never anticipated humans who stood over five feet tall. I now blame these cabinets, wholly, for my dish washing aversion. Good design (or bad!) can really make the difference in matters domestic and, of course, educational. The environment in which our students work can have a great effect on their motivation and their approach to learning, so we should do whatever we can to help our physical classroom reflect our learning goals.
Chris Meyer
Two important goals in inquiry-based learning are collaboration within small groups and student or group independence. Both result from an overall shift to a student-centered approach to learning. There are a number of things we can do to any classroom to help our students realize these goals.

You Are How You Seat

My classroom at York Mills is vintage 1950’s. You might expect its inhabitants to jump up on the tables and break into songs from Grease. It has never been renovated and, especially after the recent provincial budget, I don’t expect it to be renovated in my lifetime. It is surely the flagship model of teacher-centred design. The experts on student-centred design are the people from SCALE-UP, Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs, who have redesigned over 150 university classroom sites around the world. My dream classroom would look something like this one at the U of T:


However, my actual classroom looks like this:


So the best I can do with long skinny tables bolted to the floor is to have the students move around and work with their groups in a triangle formation:


This idea seemed simple to enough me, but as it turned out, inertia was a major obstacle. I found myself constantly harassing students to move. It took me almost three years to figure out that if I permanently put one extra chair on the front side of the front table, no physical chairs needed to be moved when going into “group work mode”. Now the harassing is down to an acceptable level.

To help out with the group organization, all the tables are numbered (and named!). And the room is “equipped” with a stack of group self- evaluations to help students assess the effectiveness of their groups. I find I remember to do this more often when the room has these amenities “built-in”.

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Equipping the Masses

As part of the shift to student-centered learning, I want my students to have some latitude in deciding what equipment to use. The majority of the equipment I use is the low-tech, “standard” equipment – the typical flora and fauna of the vintage physics classroom – along with a set of large whiteboards. As much of this as possible is stored in convenient locations in the room and is carefully labeled.


After a brief introduction, students know where stuff is and if they decide they need to measure the mass of something, they head straight for the triple-beams. No one asks for permission and I don’t spend time dragging the basic equipment out.

The careful layout of classroom equipment is not enough, however. It is a waste of time for students to walk across the room when they need a whiteboard marker or pair of scissors. Each table in the class is outfitted with a basket of goodies: whiteboard markers and an eraser, a ruler, a protractor, scissors, masking tape and three sets of multiple choice letters for concept questions.


Students’ time in my class is precious (at least I think so) and I want them to be able to work as efficiently as possible. Replacing missing items is a very small price to pay (thank you, China). Hanging from the side of each table is a small whiteboard – this was a very happy addition. I now see students, usually during particularly heated discussions, reach over the side and grab the whiteboard for quick illustrations and calculations. I was at one point trying to decide if I could actually bolt the white boards to the table surface, but I think this will do. With this layout of equipment, my hope is that students feel that they are in charge of what they are doing and also feel empowered to follow their ideas and test their hunches.

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Teachers Need Equipment Too


I finally have an effective setup for a computer and data projector that can remain in the room, ready to go at a moment’s notice. I no longer have the excuse that I have to drag the stuff out or that it gets in the way, so I use it much more regularly for quick simulations (Interactive Physics, applets) and also for ConcepTests (conceptually-based multiple choice questions often used with “clickers”). As a result, ConcepTests have become an important part of many of my lessons. Each group has in their basket a nicely laminated set of multiple choice letters ($1) that we use in the place of electronic clickers (>$1). I have never tried actual clickers and I don’t plan to – my approach is cheaper, easier and I can decide to do a ConcepTest on a whim, as the situation demands.

Every semester since I started teaching inquiry-based physics, I find that my classes have run more smoothly than before and with fewer group or personality problems. I think this is due in part to the steady improvements in the classroom environment, along with improvements in my own teaching. While we can’t renovate a classroom ourselves, with a bit of creativity, there are many changes we can make that will help our students to enjoy their time with physics and hopefully learn more than they thought possible.
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Learn More than You Thought Possible

Would you like to see an inquiry-class in action? The door to my room is always open. I am happy to have visitors and if you e-mail me today, there is usually no problem in arranging a visit for tomorrow when you fall ill.

Would you like to learn more about teaching physics through inquiry? You can find a complete set of classroom resources on my website: www.meyercreations.com/physics.
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