Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Inquiry learning - so what is new?

A better heading for this poster is: 'Thought is caught here; learning is contagious'.

I have always liked Art Costa's title for one of his books, 'A Home for the Mind'. Costa sees schools as a places to develop thoughtful students.


Inquiry learning seems to be the in thing at the moment as school come to terms with the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum. There seems no shortage of 'experts' available to supply the answers but is it all so difficult? Inquiry is what students are born to do. The 'new' curriculum says, 'intellectual curiosity is at the heart' of learning. and asks teachers to encourage 'students (to) reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge, ask questions and challenge' their assumptions and perceptions'.

Rather than introducing inquiry learning into our classrooms the question is why do so many students lose this natural desire to learn ;what has dulled their intense curiosity to find out about things that attract their attention? Two things come to mind:teachers too busy teaching students what they think ( 'the curriculum') their students should know and too much time eaten up by literacy and numeracy demands, both, all too often, divorced from the student's personal reality.

The solution is for schools to create all their classrooms as 'communities of inquiry' and that sustaining this culture comes above all else, including literacy.

If this were the case then the focus of all teaching would shift to the valuing every child's personal world and their individual responses to negotiated class, or group, experiences. This is the essence of 'personalised learning'.

The current trend of leading all students through a number of steps, or processes, of inquiry ( as is often suggested) is as unrealistic as it is contrary to the way real researchers work. Even if the goal is clear at the beginning ( for scientists as well as students) as the study progresses it needs to be open to new developments. New question will arise and new developments will occur that need to be considered. True problem solving could be called 'enlightened trial and error'. Teachers need to take advantage of learning opportunities as they arise and will need a 'prepared mind' so as be able to take advantage of whatever arises. Teaching such an environment is a form of 'artistry' and teachers need to practice,'the canny art of intellectual temptation' (Jerome Bruner).

In such an environment a curriculum 'emerges' or evolves and continuously 'mutates'. Whatever is studied needs to be researched deeply and ideas that eventuate need to reflect thoughtful responses by the students. It is important to do 'fewer thing well' to achieve such in depth thinking.

John Dewey developed a model for a good thinker early last century. He believed that conscious models of thinking could be taught through example but that later the work is taken over by the unconscious mind. This is very much in line with modern brain thinking. He believed that an approach to thinking could be applied to a range of situation but all situations have specific skills.

Dewey wrote that all thinking begins with a state of doubt about what to do or what to believe. All thinking, he wrote, has its genesis in uncertainty when an individual is confronted with a problem.Thinking is, he writes, a search for meaning.

When the problem arises we usually have goals in mind but when doubt arises we may find new goals.Implicit in each goal is a question we want to answer.

We then set about for a search for possibilities or possible answers. Each possibility will have its own strengths, the value of which will depend on our personal perspective. We will have to make choices.

We then set about searching for evidence relative the choices we have made. We use any evidence to revise our choices and may need revise our plans and to make new choices.

When we decide the goal has been reached we take appropriate action. Our minds will have been changed in the process.

Dewey reminds us that there are three search processes: the search for goals; the search for possibilities; and the search for evidence.

If schools were to really value student inquiry, and it seems few really do, then what would be observed would be positive changes in student behaviour ( 'key competencies') and rooms full of students' questions, action plans ( research) and examples of their enhanced understanding.

In such communities of inquiry 'thought is caught' and the school truly becomes 'a home for the mind'.

2 comments:

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Bruce!

I so agree with what you say here. There have been many 'new' ways to teach/learn. They have been looked at and raved about over the decades.

I was taught by a so-called learn-by-discovery way. It seems it was a good way to learn, especially in Science, for I managed to succeed at it.

Then over the years that method tarnished a bit and the 'heuristic' approach to learning was dug up and washed clean.

Now we have 'enquiry learning' that has been excavated and when polished looks good as new.

Curiousity is the key to becoming a lifelong learner. And how is that taught? First the learner has to understand that it is alright to ask questions. The only way they learn that is by getting their questions answered - whenever they ask - and there are more ways than one of answering a question. But it has to be timely and useful to the learner.

In my fifth form year as a snotty, skinny, glaekit teenager, I sat in the Science class taught by Mr Oliver. He was a good teacher.

On one occasion he was careful to explain that, "Today we're going to investigate how the current flowing in a resistor varies as we change the voltage applied across it."

He then led the discussion by asking a few questions of us as to how we thought we might go about performing this strange investigation.

Having got a few ideas, he then listed them on the blackboard and discussed attempts at making sense of it, all the time waiting for us to ask questions at appropriate moments and discussing possible answers, till eventually we agreed on a method.

He then set us into groups and handed out the various equipment so that we could perform the investigation.

This was no mean feat. But Oliver was a teacher of some considerable skill and what's more, he had earned a reputation for that throughout the school.

By the last 15 minutes of his lesson, he had already explained how we could graph our results and had also drawn a sample graph on the blackboard from the results of one of the groups.

We had 40 minute spells - always double spells in Science. So in just over an hour, we not only had been introduced to a way of investigating an idea, we had also carried out an investigation. Some of us had useful results to prove it.

That is what used to be called guided learning. It wasn't exactly heuristic, though elements of Oliver's teaching technique undoubtedly followed that principle. Learning by discovery? It wasn't quite that either, though again there were some strong elements of that in Oliver's approach. Enquiry learning? What do you think?

The next lesson, we went over our investigation results and learnt about Ohm's Law. This general law applies to the property of a conductor carrying current as a result of an applied voltage: V=IR, where V is the applied voltage, I is the resulting current and R was a somewhat constant quantity, known as Ohmic resistance, that was a property of the conductor.

Now this may all seem kind of technical. But I was a fifth former. The end of that year we sat our 'O' Levels or 'O' Grades, equivalent to the old School Certificate in NZ. I was no great shakes as a student, but old Oliver got me my 'O' grade in Science.

All his lessons were like the one I describe here.

There is nothing new in the methods I hear being talked about today, and I'm not quite sure why there has to be.

Ka kite

Bruce said...

Kia ora 'middle earth'

I guess everything is new for those who have been 'blinded' by the press of complying to incoherent imposed curriculums the past decades.

Preserving curiosity seems so obvious but it is neglected by distracted teachers.

Sounds lke you were lucky to have such a great science teacher - an expert in guided discovery? As you say, nothing is new.

Ka kite ano