Saturday, November 20, 2010

Inquiry Learning; an educational agenda for a future era.


Professor Brian Cox ( Chief Science Adviser to the UK Government) doing science on the Jonathon Ross TV Show. Science , according to Cox, is being comfortable with the unknown- a search for questions in answers. Almost the opposite to what current education is all about with the heavy formulaic emphasis on teachers' intentions, criteria and pleasing the teacher through feedback. Conformity rather than creativity.

The future requires developing schools as communities of inquiry.

1 What is inquiry learning?

Inquiry learning is the innate way humans learn from birth unfortunately this 'default' mode is all too often ‘flipped’ by schooling writes Daniel Pink’s in his book 'Drive'.In this respect scientists and artists are people who have not lost their innate inquiry dispositions.

Inquiry ought to be central to learning in the 21stC just as the ‘Three Rs’ were in Industrial Age.The New Zealand Curriculum asks teachers to develop their students as ‘seekers, users, and creators of their own knowledge’ as inquirers, ‘meaning hunters and makers’; constructing their own meanings from experiences.

All Learning Areas emphasize an inquiry a model although there is not a section on inquiry pulling ideas together. The pedagogy section essentially sees learning as a constructive approach with teachers as learning advisers. The Thinking key Competency, in particular, is all about developing an inquiry disposition (‘seekers, users and creators’).

Inquiry education has a long history going back to John Dewey (‘learning through experience’) and was, and still is, in conflict with traditional content transmission teaching which still underpins much of current practice. Until this dilemma is faced inquiry education will not be successful.

I have been a convert to inquiry learning since the 60s and believe that creative teachers (then and now) hold the key to fully developing inquiry learning for the 21stC. Elwyn Richardson (see his book ‘In the Early World’) developed his class as a 'community of scientists and artists busy exploring and expressing their ideas about their local environment’. In Taranaki, in the late 60s and 70s, integrated inquiry based programmes were developed by Howard Wilson (first integrated study in Taranaki) Bill Guild, Robin Clegg and John Cunningham. Similar developments were being actioned throughout New Zealand.

All this was 'torpedoed' by the 'blitzkrieg' of nonsense resulting from the introduction of the technocratic New Zealand Curriculum in the 80s with its strands, levels, incoherent learning objectives and unrealistic assessment demands. Creativity was the last thing looked for by ERO- and still is!

Schools are still recovering from the surveillance culture imposed!

Today we stand at a crossroad – one side the revised 2007 NZC (basically an inquiry document) and on the other the current formulaic ‘best practices’ literacy/ numeracy approaches (with their heavy accountability requirements).On the horizon the reactionary National Standards with the possibly morphing into National Testing.

It is Weta workshop education v a McDonald’s crossroads. It, however, is not one or the other decision but a matter of emphasis. Inquiry supported by literacy and numeracy (as ‘foundations skills) not literacy and numeracy plus inquiry if time allows as at present

It is about how schools spent their time.

2 What Inquiry dispositions do students need?

Our students will have to face up to a very unpredictable future and will no longer have jobs for life. ‘Students will need to know what to do when they do not know what to do’ says Piaget and Costa, or ‘to be comfortable with the unknown’says Prof Brian Cox UK Adviser in Science, or to 'enjoy the challenges of creativity' says Sir Ken Robinson.

'Future-proofing' students is the basis for the NZC Key Competencies, Art Costa’s ‘Habits of Mind’, or Guy Claxton’s ‘learning power’. It is about learning ‘how to learn’.

Dispositions to encourage include:Question asking/ wondering/ curiosity/ openness to ideas/a need to know. An ability to observe closely/ to describe observations (writing and drawing) to answer questions.The ability to learn through senses and emotional interest ( so as to uncover questions).To happily change their minds (their ‘prior ideas’) when challenged by new evidence. To continually deepen their understandings about selected content. And to develop a widening ‘portfolio’ of interests and talents (Sir Ken Robinson)

All this points towards a personalized approach to learning – one valuing the ‘voice’ and learning identity of each student and this is in conflict with current traditional (‘teachers know best’) teaching approaches.

3 The role of literacy and numeracy programmes in the 21st C

Literacy, in particular, plays a key role in Inquiry learning if we want to transfer skills. We need to see reading and writing as thinking. Students need, as stated in the revised curriculum, to be taught how to ‘seek, use (critically) and create their own knowledge’. Unpacking this phrase is the key to inquiry.

To do so literacy needs to be ‘re framed’ to ‘front load’ content and skills to ensure in depth inquiry learning. (All too often literacy and numeracy stand alone and skills taught are not transferred).Inquiry content needs to be used for comprehension and ‘key’ question answering. Research writing needs to be taught so as to go beyond ‘cut and paste’. It is good advice to never set a question that can be answered with one 'click' of google! Teachers need to encourage their students to use their own ‘voice’.This can be recognised by ‘markers’ such as 'I used too think but now…’ Students need to be able to write position papers or reports about their inquiries. Inquiry vocabulary can be introduced in literacy time. Students also need to be taught (using inquiry content) how to use various ICT media. Poems, even handwriting practice, needs to relate to the current inquiry. Modeling science experiments recording in literacy or numeracy time is a valuable idea and introduces students to physical science thinking all too often missing these days. Numeracy time should be used to introduce any practical mathematical skills needed e.g. graphing.Design presentation layout skills (computer wizards) need to be taught and bookwork ought to show qualitative growth throughout the year – to be seen as portfolio of progress.

4 A basic Inquiry Model –an attitude of mind –a human disposition

We use inquiry in all aspects of our life; it is often called‘enlightened trial and error’. All inquiry models have the same elements (a learning cycle) of a problem to solve or an issue to explore; questions defined; research or activities undertaken; presentation of ideas; and reflection to consider what has been learnt.

The Learning in Science (a co-constructivist model) is good stuff. Problem or issue defined; what are children’s ‘prior ideas’/skills; experiments /research activities; and reflection on new learning.

Each Learning Area provides variations on the inquiry models. Many schools use Kath Murdock’s model: tuning in; finding out; sorting out; going further; now what; reflection. Others use Yoram Horpaz's ‘fertile questions’ approach (Israel) and others Garth Boomer Australia approach: What do we know already?; What do we want to find out about?; Who will do what and when?; How will we know when we have finished?

James Beane ( a USA Middle school educator) outlines a process where at the beginning of the year students are asked to write out concern and things they would like to learn about. Student responses are then developed into the year’s curriculum. This is also called Negotiating the Curriculum. Students’ ideas tend to reflect traditional learning areas

5 What is the role of teacher in the 21stC?

The teacher in an inquiry approach acts as an interactive and diagnostic learning coach ensuring any skills required for quality thinking are in place. Inquiry teachers responds sensitively to students’ questions, ideas and needs to ensure all students can show continual quality improvement (‘personal best’). As Jerome Bruner says, ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’.

An inquiry based teacher establishes positive relationships of respect with every learner and tailors assistance personally where possible. Such teachers follow Vygotsky advice, ‘What learners can do with help today she/he can do by themselves tomorrow’ Scaffolding.

Inquiry based teachers negotiates with studies, activities and assessment criteria so as to share responsibility with students.They establishes predicable classroom organizations (group timetables) so all students know what to expect and to allow for teacher diagnostic interaction with students who need assistance.

Inquiry teachers ensure the room environment (the main ‘message system) both celebrates student creativity and informs all who visit.


6 The importance of rich, real, rigorous and relevant studies

Most current inquiry is shallow and superficial with students gathering information with no real interrogation and ‘disconnected’ from literacy and numeracy blocks.

To get in depth thinking it is important to do ‘fewer things well’ ( as in the revised NZC) and to ‘dig’ deeply into what is being studied.

Whatever is chosen needs to be explored through as many intelligences as possible and leads to integrated learning. Teachers need to be selective. Each study should result in three or four focused outcomes: research based on 3 or four ‘key’ questions) including ‘prior’ ideas and references; perhaps an observational drawing, descriptive writing or diagrams; and possibly a creative activity. Students should use ICT as appropriate.

Inquiry studies could last up to five weeks. Week one for negotiating questions and activities; week two for rotary group work (some work drafted in literacy time); week three finishing off and extension work; and week four evaluating success of the unit.

Teachers need to see the need to introduce their students to a set of themes to cover during the year (two a term?) based on the strands of the Learning Areas. Some studies could cover several Learning Areas. Some studies might ‘emerge' and become ‘mini units’. All studies and themes need to be seen as a means for individual students to uncover and to develop their talents.

Possible themes:

Environmental studies (term one and four)
Physical science /technology/maths study (term two and three)
(Above two linked to science/maths fairs?)
Local heritage study (term one or four)
Maoritanga study (could combine with above)
One of the creative arts (drama, dance, music) as an intensive study – linked with Arts Festival.
A modern cultural comparison – to develop a ‘feeling for’ other cultures.
An historical comparison - as above (both in term 2 and 3)
An independent study in Term four as an ‘authentic’ assessment of inquiry skills.

7 What would the evidence be of inquiry learning?

Students exhibit curiosity about whatever captures their attention or imagination ( be ‘seekers, users and creators of the own knowledge’).They would be responsible for much of their own learning able to work independently calling on teacher as required (or if the teacher has seen a need to interact to assist). These skills are the essence of the modern work force.

Evidence would be seen of clearly defined class expectations to allow for independent focused learning. This could be seen by negotiated rotary group task in literacy (language arts), numeracy, and inquiry groups. The latter is rarely seen.

Inquiry based classrooms would reflect a community of scientists (and artists) busy exploring issues of importance to them, equipped with all the key competencies and inquiry and expressive skills to achieve personal excellence.

The current inquiry topic would be integral to the whole day’s programme providing the current study, supplying the energy and inspiration for the day work.

In inquiry based rooms students’ bookwork, and work on display, or in electronic portfolios, should show students ‘voice, their thoughts arguments, justified opinions, new knowledge, even unanswered questions should be seen.

Most of all in an inquiry room students ought to be able to undertake an independent study using key questions, ‘prior’ ideas, research proposals and research/experiments/ data, including an evaluation of their learning and possible future actions.

The room environment would reflect the current inquiry from key questions to completed research, work displayed reflecting student ‘voice’ and individuality.

8 To conclude.

A 21stC education needs to be based on ensuring all students retain (and expand) their innate inquiry dispositions ( the key competencies).

The need to develop the gifts and talents of all students is the challenge of 21st education through in depth understandings/ exhibitions/performances.

To develop inquiry based classrooms ‘literacy (and to a lesser degree numeracy) need to be refamed to develop in-depth comprehension of content is vital. Literacy and numeracy need to be seen as vital ‘foundation skills' to develop all students as ‘confident life long learners' able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge.’

I know of no school that has as yet achieved a truly inquiry based programme but several are working towards it.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are right.Education, along with all other antiquated organisations with their genesis in an Industrail Era, are at a crossroads.

Have teachers realized this, or are they too busy complying to notice?

Alison said...

We realise... and we are also very busy complying!

Bruce said...

I feel for what you say Alison.Creative teachers are in a bind. To do what they feel is right or to do what others say is right. Until principals gain the courage to face the future creative teachers will have a difficult life. I only know of a few such principals - and such principals must work together.One gruop I know of does just this. Most however work in isolation - strange in these days of cyber communication.Maybe they are waiting for a leader. If they are we will never realize the creative education our students deserve. Sadly most principals are not creative or do not know what it means to be so.

Librarian said...

The International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme comes very close with inquiry learning embedded as a mjor pedagogical approach. The essential elements of the curriculum framework focuses on all the aspects of inquiry learning that you mentioned.

Bruce said...

You are right.I wish we had taken on the IBP and the secondary school equivalent in New Zealand.It would have placed inquiry central in the primary area and encouraged new thinking and new structures in secondary schools. I worked a few years ago with an International School in Bali that gained accreditation for the IB so I know a little about it.