Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What is this thing called Inquiry Learning?

While visiting local intermediate school the principal wanted to show me examples of what he called "inquiry learning" - but, to be honest, he wasn't happy with the term because his opinion of what goes on under the term is more about the inquiry process (as important as it is) and not enough about the real learning that results from it.It is the old process/content argument again. I too feel much of what is called "inquiry learning" is more about the process than real in-depth understanding of the content involved.

The illustration shows students using a microscope linked to a computer to observe what has happened to the bacteria they have placed in the petre dish of agar jelly. In this example the "inquiry process" is a means to an end, to find out what has happened - to learn about bacteria growth and later to apply it to issues of cleanliness. This is " productive inquiry" or applied science ( investigation)

Inquiry learning seems to be flavour of the year but what is inquiry learning- and is it anything new?

While the emphasis on inquiry learning is valuable it is all too easy for schools to think it is some sort of process that all children should know about - that the process of finding out is more important than the depth of understanding, or the product, being created. And, of course, it is not new - it is the default mode of humans from birth until it is, all too often crushed by the formal education system. Inquiry is a messy business and teachers, all too often, find it easier to tell , or to guide children ( using teaching intentions, goal, predetermined success criteria, and WALTS) to what they think students should know.

Inquiry learning, I presume, is a means of re-introducing students to their lost birthright and to ensure that, armed with the process, they will become life long learners.

Good intentions but from my observation primary teachers using defined inquiry approaches seem more interested in the process than the outcome.

Scientists often despair at educators attempts to define the scientific process ( inquiry learning) preferring to call it 'enlightened trial and error' -and for scientists ( and artists using the more or less similar creative process) it is driven by a need to know. And it is the knowing ( and facing up to even more questions to follow up) that it is all about.

And all too often, in real life, the process is anything like a prescribed journey as it is full of false trails ( that later may well be important) and the process is only visible at the end of the journey, when it written up.

Schools that claim to be using an "inquiry approach" need to be able to show examples of the in-depth thinking of their students that have resulted from the process - like real scientists, and not just talk about the inquiry process and show all the various thinking skills that the children have used. They ought to show how students concepts, ideas, theories and understandings have developed.

There are a number of models of inquiry learning available for schools. One that is popular seems to exhibit all the faults I have mentioned - the Kath Murdock model. Schools who use this model can show the various stages and examples of children's thinking .Along with this such schools introduce of a range of 'thinking tools' that are felt valuable. The sad thing is that there is nothing wrong with either the process, or the thinking tools, but they must result in worthwhile content learning and application and not seen as important in themselves. What I have seen leaves me wondering about the model's success

From my visits to schools such things as venn diagrams, PMIs, thinking maps, habits of mind, thinking hats, multiple intelligences tec are seen as important aspects but they all ought to be seen only as a means to an end - some real in depth thinking by the children. Too many examples I have seen seem to be diversions, used to show schools know about them, rather than to develop some real solid learning.

Some of the best inquiry learning I have seen mimics the ways real scientists work. In my opinion the best use of inquiry learning ( or whatever it is called) is in the process of developing exhibits for a science, technology, or maths fair. In such situations the focus is clear - to develop something that demonstrates real learning. Other excellent examples are when students dig deeply into their unique gifts and talents driven to learn as much as they can.

Schools must ensure their students learn in powerful ways to achieve meaningful learning; active meaning orientated learning. The inquiry process does not guarantee this.

Elwyn Richardson, New Zealand's pioneer creative teacher ( a scientist with an art bent), used to say a "study without content is study at risk" - his thoughts still ring true today.

Jane Gilbert, from the NZCER, author of the "Knowledge Wave", has written that primary teachers like the inquiry process because their content knowledge in scientific areas is weak and that secondary teachers find the inquiry process too time consuming in their desire to cover the curriculum.
Like most things it is neither either or, but the best of both.

Real inquiry requires meaningful tasks/challenges; it involves active learning; it requires valuing student's prior knowledge; and as the inquiry get underway teachers need to continuously interact providing feedback and assistance as required. As a results of such learning students internalise tacitly an inquiry disposition.

Real 'inquiry ' learning results in a realistic product, performance, exhibition, or public event; it is driven by real questions; it is focused on constructive investigations that involve inquiry and knowledge building; students should drive the choices if they are to feel responsible for their own learning; and the best problems are authentic ones that occur in the real world.

This is the key to real inquiry.

And it has been the basis of creative teaching and learning for pioneer teachers for decades; ironically, by teachers who rarely mentioned the inquiry process believing simply in 'learning by doing'. Such teachers were, unknowingly, implementing the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum Vision which asks of teachers to envision their students as 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge.'

And that is the essence of the inquiry process.

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