Inquiry – Classrooms like an Airport – Part one

One of the issues for many teachers, when considering an inquiry approach to learning, is the concern that many students are simply ill-equipped or incapable of taking control of their own learning. There seemed to us to be many learners who just don’t, or can’t, be motivated enough to inquire without us pushing and prodding them along. It seems great for about half our class, we reflect, but what about the rest? An inquiry approach just doesn’t seem to work for them.
Every teacher wants to engage every student in their class. I think it’s very easy for us to look at our class and only see failure if every student isn’t totally absorbed and self motivated. What I’d like to propose is another way to view success for our students – that is to view our inquiry based classrooms like an airport.
Every airport has a bustle of activity with planes of different sizes, capacity, speed capabilities and destinations all taking off, landing, refueling and grounded for ‘maintenance’. Every one of our students have developed varying skills, competencies and apptitudes for curiosity and I think it’s helpful to describe three different types of students as flying in different roles and different types of planes. (I’m sure you’ll be impressed with the lengths that I’m willing to go to develop this analogy…)
The Fighter Plane Pilot

This student seems to refill with rocket fuel every time they land in our classes. They are extremely easy to motivate, they are extremely adaptable and reflective and can adjust their flight plan during their inquiry with very little difficulty. It’s often likely that a teacher will only need to check in with them occassionally (they are so self sufficient) to guide, facilitate and direct their flight when needed. The fighter plane also creates enormous thrust and energy to the rest of the airport and it’s easy for other planes get swept up in their enthusiasm.
The Boeing 747 Pilot

These students take a little more time to refuel and build up speed. They can take some support and guidance, even when in flight, and regularly land for loading and unloading. The great thing about these students is their ability to take a number of passengers with them (described below). They are very capable of leading a group in getting to a destination while sharing the experience along the way. These pilots tend to take one direction and rely on a teacher’s control tower as they pick up skills and competencies along the way.
The Passenger

The Passenger students are the ones taking the journey with one of the Boeing Pilots. They haven’t really developed the apptitude to pilot an inquiry but do benefit from being a part of the journey and getting to the destinations. Occasionally these students will listen to the Pilot announce over the intercom, they may visit the cockpit from time to time but will mostly sit back, absorb the experience and enjoy the ride.
The Terminal Sitter

These students are those that prefer to watch planes fly in and out of the airport and generally people watch. They rarely travel anyway, are satisfied to be a part of the hustle and bustle, will follow airport rules and customs and unfortunately do the bare minimum required to be able to stay (move around the airport to avoid security and even carry fake luggage to blend in with the crowd).
What I’m becoming comfortable with is allowing students to engage in Inquiry at their level. It’s my role as a teacher to equip, guide and inspire them to travel further (I want to write about the teachers role in part two) but we shouldn’t allow terminal sitters to hold back the fighter planes and the Boeing Pilots – we need THEM to fly higher so they can provide momentum and lift for the rest of the airport.
I think that airports are fantastic places – they’re full of energy and excitement. People arrive and land with freedom and generally, a high level of self responsibility. To many an airport could seem almost like chaos but we all know the incredibly high level of supervision and guidance that makes it safe for all of us.
I also think it’s extremely important for our classrooms to have both of components of responsiblity and guidance. Students should be able to take off in their own directions and land when they need support. Equally, I think that our classrooms should allow for students to have those safety guidelines that keep all learners safe.
We should, then, develop a classroom that allows every learner to fly in their own manner; both where they want to go, how they could get there and with the help and support they need.
An energetic, orderly and diverse airport of learners.
(Photos used under Creative Commons License – sourced from