Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why is inquiry learning a problem?

I was visiting local school when a teacher of a year 3/4 class called out to me to come and see her Kowhai Study. It was motivated, she said, by a previous blog I had written. Made my day! Thanks Sheila.

Link for an inquiry lesson on flax:
(Inquiry learning)

(Links to other inquiry blogs)

At a social function yesterday I overheard a comment made between a couple of principals and a deputy principal about inquiry learning.'Where are you up to with inquiry learning?' one said.The other explained about having recently had a TOD on the subject taken by a visiting expert and how they were having her back to plan the next terms inquiry units. One school was following Kath Murdock's model.

I offered my thoughts saying, 'What was the issue? Inquiry is the way all students learn , that is, until they come to school'. Then I thought I better get back to my beer and sausage roll.

On the way home I was thinking about the issue. For most of my teaching career I had been a science adviser helping teachers develop 'inquiry' into their classrooms.Science is only another word for inquiry learning.

So what is inquiry learning problematic requiring out of town 'experts' to spend a whole day assisting teachers come to terms with it? It seems that all the great work done by teachers in the past has been forgotten? Surely this can't be the case?

We are all born with ability to discover the secrets of the universe and of our own minds, and with the drive to explore and experiment until to do.Science isn't the province of 'scientists', instead, it's continuous with the kind of learning wee all do when we are young. The advantage of this natural learning is that it allows you to find out about your particular environment. It is not that children are little scientists ( inquirers) but that scientists are big children.

So why does this natural means of learning need to be reintroduced? How come most students lose the facility to inquire?

It is all to do with the assumptions ( often hidden) teacher have about schooling and possibly this is a result of current, often imposed, expectations?

A look at how time is apportioned during the day is a clue. Today most time is given to literacy and numeracy. As well assessment is also focused on these areas. National Standards will simply continue this trend.

So the question is where does inquiry learning come in?

A little history. In the late 60s a few innovative teachers in our province of Taranaki first introduced integrated units into their classrooms. Such developments occurred throughout New Zealand mainly encouraged by art advisers. Integrating learning still hangs on on during whatever time is left over after numeracy and literacy have been catered for.

Prior to this the day was compartmentalised with every element being assigned a set time. The idea of integrating learning areas was not considered. Schools reflected the efficiencies of mass production factories.

During the exciting years of the late 60s and 70s integrated programmes became the norm and as all 'jumped on the band waggon' sometimes the content of such learning left a lot to be desired. Those who did it properly developed amazing inquiry based classrooms. Some were based on science ( mainly ecological studies) and social studies ( using a 'feeling for' other culture approach) while others focused on the language or creative arts. All together, when done properly, formed a powerful learning approach. Teachers who appreciated this way of teaching used their language arts block to develop ideas and where possible integrated aspects of mathematics.

The came Tomorrow's Schools, a new curriculum that divided Learning Areas into strands , levels, and countless learning objectives; combined with the need to assess and measure them all.It was a curriculum, designed by technocrats, a mile wide and an inch deep. Schools were flooded with contractual quickly trained advisers to confuse the issue further. A later change placed greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy which focused collective school minds even further.

Innovative teachers, with their integrated inquiry based programmes, were all but forgotten. It was not the time for creative teachers. Thankfully a few schools led by such teachers ( now principals) continued doing their best to be both creative and compliant. Most principals simply complied to managerial expectations.

Now we have the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum which stemmed the tide of previous educational nonsense. Although there is no special section on 'inquiry' an inquiry model is included in all the various Learning Areas.

Developing an inquiry approach across the curriculum ought not to be a problem. So why is it?

Well the National Standards, as mentioned, don't help.They present a pull back to the past. A distortion of the schooling experience for both teachers and students.

So maybe the inquiry ideas of earlier times have been all but forgotten overlaid by decades of imposed requirements?

To develop inquiry programmes today requires schools to take one of the key phrases from the 2007 Curriculum seriously , that all students need to ' seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

Unpacking this phrase is the key to developing innovative inquiry programmes. Guy Claxton's phrase 'learnacy ( or, as Sir Ken Robinson writes, 'creativity') is more important than literacy and numeracy'. Their role is that of vital 'foundation skills' necessary to do inquiry and creative learning. The need to develop every learners gifts and talents ought to be a priority for inquiry based schools.

Literacy and numeracy programmes need to be 're framed' to allow students to develop the skills to 'seek and use' in their current inquiry studies. This is all about 'personalising' learning and is a long way from the earlier 19thC factory model that clings on in too many teachers heads.

Inquiry learning is about developing new minds for a new millennium. It requires rethinking of what school ought to look like in the 21stC. It is about how we apportion time in our schools.

There were teachers developing such 'new minds' in earlier times but now all school need to take developing such integrated minds seriously. There are those that say we are moving into a new 'Second Renaissance ' or 'Creative Age' - exciting thoughts!

Creative schools and creative teachers need to lead this change and to do this they need to escape from past assumptions.

To do this they think back to how young children learnt before school -and scientists and artists.

The vision of the New Zealand Curriculum is for every learner to be a 'confident, life long learner'; for 'learner' replace with the word 'inquirer'.

So far we are not doing so good in achieving this vision.But then we don't even assess such an important attribute! That is why inquiry learning is so important.

We just need to change our collectively minds and get on with it.Time to leave the last centuries thinking behind.

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