Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning

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.

0 thoughts on “Inquiry-Based Learning

  1. Rochelle asked me what I thought of inquiry-based learning, and then told me that I should blog the response as a comment. Since I’m such an obedient soul, well, I’m obeying. 🙂 Actually, I’m just cutting and pasting . . .

    “For me, walking into a classroom and telling them to ask their questions is a great way to generate a discussion, particularly for critical thinking and close reading skills.
    But that discussion MUST have some . . . points?
    Students don’t always have points in their discussion . . . or purpose.
    Sometimes they just *discuss*, and while that’s great and productive in its own right, it isn’t always enough.
    Even if the teacher does no more than prompt the discussion by asking them to ask their questions, she is influencing the discussion.
    Whether it’s just her physical presence, or her use of silence, or even her active participation by poking at the questions they raise and conclusions they come to . . .
    She is guiding/enabling/influencing that discussion.”

    There you go, Roch, and the fallout is all up to you.

    Rochelle: Thank you, darling! 🙂

  2. My understanding is that inquiry-based learning tends to fall apart of the topic or structure isn’t defined and jump-started by the teacher. And as Rho says, guided by the teacher as well. The students come up with questions around the given topic, and design their own research, but not in a vaccuum. The teacher provides the kernel of knowledge and perspective that students then use as a basis to launch their own investigative processes.

    However, I didn’t focus on instructional methodology much when I did my ed MA – I was more interested in program evaluation.

  3. From kindergarten to high school students are steeped in how to learn from teachers and instructors. For those who drop out and return to university later, there are transition years to build their listening, note taking and writing skills. Very few primary or high schools provide any training on the skills required for self-directed/inquiry based learning. Then when the stakes are high i.e. the content is sophisticated, and grades are important, we expect the students to do it on their own. Very unfair.

  4. I’m a strong believer in people being able to pursue learning they really care about (even if those skills tend to wilt and atrophy in school), but I don’t think we can necessarily expect this to happen in classrooms. No matter what the topic, the number of students really interested is always a relatively small percentage.

    If individuals are going to take advantage of the benefits of true intrinsic motivation by choosing topics that really interest them, setting challenging goals that are relevant to their lives and then pursuing and achieving those goals, they’ll probably want:
    — individualized help in figuring out which topics and projects are the best match for their interests/skills/resources and desired applications of the learning
    — other people (both learners and “experts”) who really care about the same topic to learn with and from
    — coach(es) for accountability, resource help, literacy and skill development, guidance and encouragement
    — tools for connecting to resources and people world-wide in their topic area

    Perhaps in any classroom, you might find groups of two or three people who might share the same topic and goal for a while, but most often I think they would be individual projects/topics. When you start thinking down this path, you see that classrooms don’t make any sense as an organizing principle for this kind of activity.

  5. I too have been trying to wade my way through the multiple definitions of inquiry as I research the topic “Inquiry Learning in and ICT-rich environment” as part on my e-learning fellowship. It does seem that everyone you talk to has a different definition and I have explored some of these ideas on my blog.

  6. I found this site via Jan-Marie – thanks.

    Inquiry learning will not work unless students are ‘set up for success’. It is student lead but teacher guided – I think that is crucially important.

    This means huge amounts of forward planning on the teacher’s part – although the student may be choosing the actual topic or part of the topic according to interest. Maybe the whole class is studying a topic or looking to solve a problem – they do a whole class brainstorm and categorise/ map the brainstorm (teacher models) then divide into groups according to the subtopic they choose and brainstorm again on their own following the teacher’s model. Many of the skills can be practised in other areas – for example brainstorming can be practised when writing topics.

    Helping children to develop into independent inquirers takes years and years and the skills needs to be practised all the years of schooling. Schools need to have a school wide plan for the development of these skills (information literacy skills including ICT and thinking skills). Some can be pre-taught, others taught just-in-time. The main point is that such skills are taught not caught.

    Guided inquiry is a very good model to follow. As several have pointed out – giving students a topic and then a hand-in date is useless. Doing so puts us back to the ‘project’ days where the student had no idea of how to tackle the project and was not provided with the many necessary skills so -surprise, surprise – they either copied it all and added a pretty cover or had mum and dad do it all. What on earth did the student learn? Nothing at all – no content knowledge and no skills in how to carry out inquiry. Too often the teacher’s jaundiced view of ‘project work’ is simply reinforced by the poor standard of the work handed in.

    Guiding student to carry out inquiry or research takes much preplanning and effort on the part of the teacher but if that is done properly then once the process is underway the teacher really can act as a facilitator. The end product may be shared with others as a presentation like a speech, song, essay etc or/and it may recommend some form of action that is required or it may be the presentation of solutions to problems.

    This really is life long learning – I often use the process myself – when writing an article, buying a house or new equipment, working out how to get neighbours to look at drainage etc etc.

    This is learning to learn – students with such skills and experience shouldn’t end up on Fair Go having been fleeced or conned. Instead they should know how to ask the right questions to reveal problems and then they should be able to solve the problems

    The process also of course includes constant reflective evaluation. There are important times when the teacher perhaps needs to intervene to allow the student to move forward – setting the students up for success.

    Part of the problem in many countries including New Zealand is that teachers don’t always realise this and are not teaching the skills in any kind of planned way. (See our Education Review Office report (2005) Student learning in the information landscape).This is particularly so at secondary level and so too many students lack the skills to progress as well as should do as tertiary level. Some countries have teacher librarians who are trained in inquiry learning and information literacy skills and can oversee this development across the school. I believe though that most teachers need some professional development in this area.

    I frequently see wonderful, exciting inquiry work from new entrant students (5yrs) through to upper primary and high school students (not so many at high school unfortunately as too many teachers there lack the skills to lead students in worthwhile inquiry).

    Rochelle: Thank you so much for this wonderful comment, Liz! I’ve really been waiting to get a good answer to this question, and this is a fantastic one! I think my own wonderful experience with inquiry can be best classifed as “guided inquiry”, and yes, I absolutely see how it can be used to wonderful effect. Do you have a blog of your own? I would certainly love to follow it if you did. These are exactly the kinds of insights I’m so keen to keep up on. Thanks again!

    p.s. I love “taught not caught”.

  7. I found your blog while searching for a definition of Inquiry Learning to assist my home work assignment.

    Inquiry has at its foundation a constructivist theory, that humans construct new knowledge. A central component of this process is Piaget’s description of cognitive dissonance. Inquiry removes the information source from the deliverer, Teacher, to the inquirer, Student. When in pure lecture mode only so much of this can take place and learning suffers – I happen to like a good lecture, I am affected by auditory experiences and I love to talk, I end up turning lectures into discussions, i.e. Inquiry.

    Too many people lack self-initiative, curiosity, motivation. For these folks such skills must be taught,unfortunately. This, to me, is the common ground of all Inquiry based learning; whether Teacher initiated or Student initiated, that is a choice for a particular day’s lesson. However, who generates the knowledge is of utmost importance to distinguishing lecture from discussion.

    College teachers do not require even a single course in how to teach; to affect quality learning at that level surely is a matter of serendipity. However, this is changing in the UMass Amherst Electrical and Computer Engineering Program and undergraduate Physics program. Students are forced to invent, explain, and essentially own their learning.

    Have you any new Inquiry insights this last year?

    Thanks for the topic

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