The Virtue of Collaborative Inquiry


‘Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.’

‘• Socrates

Socrates teaches us that the mark of an educated person is that the individual is aware of the extent of his/her own ignorance.  Thus, and paradoxically, the goal of an educator is to teach their students the pleasure of expanding their sphere of knowledge, while observing the corollary expansion of an even vaster sphere of ignorance, and gazing into this wonderful abyss of potential new wisdom with awe.  Teachers are confronted with the difficult task of inspiring in their pupils the Promethean spark necessary to appreciate the Olympian flame atop the edifice of learning, and the motivation to claim it for themselves, as it will not be given to them without their own efforts.

Igniting Flames through National Geographic Science

National Geographic has always taken the approach that students must first be fascinated with their subject matter before they can be engaged by it, and NatGeo’s Science program is no exception.  The program employs three primary methods to engage young students:

  1. Immerse students in the Nature of Science and Inquiry

The first step of the program seeks to establish the social character of the Scientific Method by introducing students to actual researchers and explorers.  This shows students that they are being invited to join in the collaborative activity that is scientific progress, a process which builds upon the progress made by thousands of years of their fellow humans seeking to understand the beautiful and natural world into which we are all born.  For example, students are introduced to biologist Greg Marshall, whose Crittercam is used to give researches a first person perspective of the behaviors of various animals in their natural habitat.  Issac Newton said ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’; students will have more of an appreciation for the achievements of science once they have been formally introduced to their own giants, upon whose shoulders they have the privilege of standing.

  1. Unlock the Big Ideas of Science for All Students

The second step of the program presents students with the big concepts in science (ex. ‘How do the Earth and its Moon move?’) to spark their interest in exploring the smaller concepts that work in concert to produce the greater phenomenon.  I can still recall my own endeavor to understand Einstein’s Theories of Relativity when I was nine years old. My interest was sparked by my fascination with black holes and neutron stars, and the feeling of wonder that came with the realization that these natural marvels were the result of the very same force that caused me to return to earth whenever I attempted to take flight like Superman, despite my most earnest attempts to do so.  This stage of National Geographic Science further solidifies the social aspect of scientific inquiry through the use of collaborative activities, such as review songs and projects that reinforce the idea that the mysteries of nature are accessible to all.

  1. Build Scientific and Content Literacy

This final stage of National Geographic Science challenges the student to ‘become an expert’ and ‘explore on your own’ by providing them the resources to independently supplement their knowledge in topics that pique their interest.  Students build confidence and develop intellectual autonomy as they become experts in their own chosen field, concluding with the opportunity to show off their expertise as they share with their peers the knowledge they have acquired through their own inquiry.  Thus, the National Geographic Science program culminates in the synthesis of the individual and communal facets of the scientific method, having shown students the pleasure of sharing the fruits of one’s own efforts with fellow truth-seekers who travel along distinct, but not unequal, paths.

STEM Lesson Ideas

National Geographic Science also offers a variety of ideas and examples that teachers might use as inspiration to develop their own creative STEM activities and lessons.  Such ideas include having students design their own backpacks, sunglasses, or even aquariums.  Other creative methods of inspiring within students a passion for learning STEM are researching wheels or the geometry of car design, designing a baseball bat, and even ‘travelling to the Moon’, which could include using simulators, such as Universe Sandbox, to let students experiment and analyze the grand dynamics of astrophysics, while also incorporating technology to supplement students’ own imaginations.  Educators are also invited to join the NatGeo Learning Facebook community and share their own activities, or gather inspiration from the ideas of others.

Aristotle, the great natural philosopher who studied under Socrates’ own great pupil, Plato, could be called the last human who had knowledge of all things knowable, a statement that is more indicative of the enormous progress that human understanding has made in two millennia than his own formidable intellect.