Sunday, August 22, 2010

Inquiry is the basis of all education

Students, as part of a bush study, observe the flowers on a nikau palm tree.The students in this particular class were real experts in native plants , ecology and native plant propagation. Such intense inquiry leads not only to science understanding and environmental awareness put also observational art , imaginative art and poetic language work.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum (07) is all about students 'using creative, critical and meta cognitive process to make sense of their information, experiences and ideas' - in simple language inquiry learning. The curriculum asks of teachers to ensure all students leave 'confident life long learners'... 'competent thinkers and problem solvers who actively seek, use and create their own knowledge'. Perhaps the opposite is true - teachers do not have to develop such attributes, this is the natural way they learn, their innate 'default mode' until it is 'flipped' by school experiences!

If schools were to centre learning around student inquiry then they would be dramatically changed - and, in particular, how time is used. Today,in almost all classroom literacy and numeracy take up all the 'prime time' , and then, all too often, divorced from whatever inquiry is being done. In an inquiry based classroom all education would centre around inquiry and literacy and numeracy would be integrated into current studies or, at least, developing skills and content comprehension necessary for deep understanding.

To key to inquiry learning is to develop challenging studies and, where possible, studies that arise from the students' interests and concerns. No matter how they are introduced they need to be negotiated with the students so as to develop a sense of ownership and shared purpose. As the curriculum says, students to be able to research and 'reflect on their own learning, draw on their personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions and challenge the basis of their assumptions and perceptions'. If only!

The best teachers, in my experience, are those who inspire memories in their students of studies; teachers who engage their students in great inquiry studies. Such teachers do 'fewer things well' so as to dig deeply into whatever is being studied. All too often what is seen are 'cut and paste' projects courtesy of one click from 'google'- learners who 'scan' rather than 'dig'. And little evidence is to be seen of transference of literacy and numeracy skills.

Only when done in depth will inquiry ever be taken seriously. It is imperative that that educators, who believe in students being helped to construct their own meanings around their questions, work hard to ensure their students learn to a high personal standard.

All too often schools seem keen to talk about this or that model of inquiry as if it is simply a process - however if nothing worthwhile results then such thinking is superficial and real learning is at risk.

The standards set for current inquiries are too low. When one reads what students produce there is little student 'voice' to be seen; information presented is simply paraphrased rather than critically interpreted. All too often what is missing the importance of relevance, meaning, and sufficient evidence of understanding.

All too often the use of technology is equally as shallow and all too often a distraction - a good example are 'glitzy' but shallow Power Points! The full transformational power of technology is yet to be realized.

Powerful inquiry studies inspire students because of the learning that takes place in the process as well as culminating exhibitions, displays and demonstrations. one vital clue to such studies are the maths, technology and science fair exhibits - which could become models for year long learning. The same would apply to artistic exhibits and performances as well.

In the future students with inquiry and creative skills will be in demand. Such 'key competencies', or 'learning power' are developed by means of involvement in such intense studies or projects. The future will require students who can think through 'messy' problems, write, make, build, imagine, compose, films, and produce all sorts of content.

Teachers need to take inquiry studies seriously and create opportunities for their students to develop their gifts and talents and learning competencies. Authentic assessment should focus on what students can do and this is best determined when students are asked to apply what they have learnt to new experiences or situations.

In the future, as one school mission states for their students, 'by our actions we are known.

The best inquiry studies endure, if they are personally meaningful; if they contribute to the future careers and interests of the students.

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