I’m really struggling with the idea of inquiry-based learning practices. Every discussion about it ends up upside down and backwards, because we all seem to mean something radically different when we use the terminology. The general idea appears to revolve around having students be more engaged in the curriculum, and beyond that I can’t work out any common ground.
What’s becoming a standard definition of an inquiry-based classroom (from the experiences I’ve had with it thus far) is one where the instructor does not lecture and does not impose topics, but instead stops, turns the lights around, and asks students what they want to learn.
This sounds great. It really does. But it concerns me. It concerns me because I’m not certain students (particularly undergraduate students, but also graduate students, to be honest) are ready to answer that question. And I think it’s okay that they’re not ready. It’s like bringing someone into a darkened room and ask them which of the paintings on the walls they would like to learn about. They need to get a glimpse of the place first in order to tell you, and I think our job is to turn up the lights in the room.
On a basic level, universities are already structured in this way; once we get through, for instance, History 101, students get to tell us what areas they want to focus on: African American history, Renaissance history, the history of poverty in Europe. We give them a bit of an introduction before we ask them to make choices, and I think that’s wise. They don’t know what we know. The come to us to learn. They come to us to have their universes turned around, to discover that the thing they never took any interest in before is actually utterly fascinating. I never liked history, (in fact, I failed my history classes in high school. Twice.) but I found it completely fascinating as an undergrad. I had no particular interest in religion until I started taking history classes either, and I now have a master’s degree in Theological Studies. If I hadn’t been guided by faculty who shaped the courses they taught with their own research interests, I wouldn’t have discovered these two passions in my life. I know I’m not the only one who can say that. What if they had just asked me what I wanted to learn about? I can’t imagine what I would have said, frankly.
Inquiry-based learning methods (as described to me thus far) appear to undervalue the resource that the instructor really is to the student. While I’ve spent lots of time talking about changing the structure of power in classrooms (taking some power away from the instructor in order to empower students), but if the structure of the course is based entirely on the questions of the students, there isn’t much room for the knowledge of the instructor. Someone in one of the sessions today asked about this; how can you bring research and teaching closer together if the students are determining the direction? That resonates with what Bob Rae (“call me Bob” Rae) said in the keynote; research and teaching need to go hand in hand. Without the research, the teaching is empty; without the teaching, we’re no longer a university.
In an ideal world, the reason students come to universities, the reason they exist in the first place, is because students want to learn from the experiences of established scholars and grow intellectually with their guidance and feedback. As a graduate student, I wanted the instructor to set the parameters of the course. I get to pick what I want to study based on the course description, after all; I didn’t come to school (and in one notable instance, I didn’t [have someone who was not me] pay my 13K USD in tuition) to learn about what the person sitting next to me wants to study that day. I came to learn from this professor, I came to glean some knowledge from and be guided by this particular instructor. She knows things other people do not. She has read documents other people have ignored. She has had epiphanies and realizations that I can learn from. I wanted her to establish the direction we were going to take, and give me freedom within it to understand it in my own way. I would love to see instructors tie their teaching in very closely with their research; to me that would be the ideal learning experience.
I’ve been involved in amazing inquiry-based learning experiences. One in particular was at an advanced graduate level (a phd class) where the instructor plucked a particularly thorny question out of her own research process and we worked on it as a group. It was completely fascinating, and I hadn’t had such an amazing learning experience prior and I have yet to experience anything that matched it. But she didn’t ask us what we wanted to learn; she gave us a question and gave us the option to participate in that inquiry. I felt like I had been let into the tiny little room at the top of the ivory tower, really engaging in the deep questions, and participating in finding out the answer. Until recently I thought this was inquiry-based learning. But apparently it’s not; it’s merely a subset called problem-based learning.
Don’t get me wrong, I see a place for peer interaction in a classroom; in fact, I spend quite a bit of my regular workday pitching that very idea. But (perhaps biased as a former phd student in a very traditional and structured discipline) I’m uncomfortable with unloading the intellectual work of creating curriculum onto students. Of all the things the extremely well-educated among us can offer society, presenting a unique and surprising path through a dense discipline seems like the very best. There’s lots of freedom within a structured curriculum; it’s still up to the students whether or not they want to be there, and what perspective they want to take on the ideas that arise.
Can someone explain inquiry-based learning to me? Please tell me I’ve misunderstood.