What is Inquiry?
Inquiry-based learning can be defined as learning that “starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios – rather than simply presenting established facts or portraying a smooth path to knowledge. The process is often assisted by a facilitator.”
In short, through some form of productive struggle, students “uncover” material, as opposed to content coverage and the memorization/regurgitation of facts and knowledge…For a look at what this uncovering looks like and why it is so crucial, refer to a previous post, “Why I Refused to Flip My Classroom.” In fact, I highly encourage you to take a few short minutes to read the post and then return to this one.
Regarding this productive struggle, according to John Van de Walle:
It is hard to think of allowing – much less planning for – the children in your classroom to struggle. Not showing them a solution when they are experiencing difficulty seems almost counterintuitive. If our goal is relational understanding, however, the struggle is part of the learning, and teaching becomes less about the teacher and more about what the children are doing and thinking.
Why Inquiry is King
As a teacher, everything I taught was infused, in one way or another, with inquiry, creativity, and/or literacy. And, inquiry was often integrated with the other two. For example, when my students exercised their creativity by building pinball machines, they engineered with specified constraints that led to a deeper understanding of electricity & magnetism and force & motion.
As a classroom teacher the rigor drove the relevance. I knew that if my students were consistently exposed to activities that were challenging and unique, they would be engaged and therefore the content would be relevant to them. In general, I led with inquiry and tried to let the rest take care of itself.
Also, as an administrator, whenever I walk into a teacher’s classroom I almost subconsciously first look for (1) if said teacher has established a culture of respect with students, (2) how long any given student is “forced” to pay attention and participate to “make it through” the current lesson, and (3) whether or not the students are engaged in inquiry.
At the end of the day, when it comes to student learning, inquiry is king, because…
The end in mind should always be a deeper student understanding of content. And, the means to this end, undoubtedly, is inquiry. After all, per Wiggins and McTighe, “An understanding can never be ‘covered’ if it is to be understood.”
In the End
Facts are ubiquitous. Facts are free. And, if facts are all we are teaching, we should ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Grant Wiggins says it best:
Some student inquiry leading to student inference is an essential and non-negotiable part of learning for understanding…Otherwise, it is rote learning with no thinking behind it…If the aim of education is to produce autonomous and inquisitive students, then it seems plausible to argue that student inquiry (and thus, student questions) should drive curriculum.
While making the instructional/learning shift to inquiry is not necessarily easy (and something we will talk about in upcoming posts)…from my experiences I can guarantee, “Once you go inquiry, you'll never go back!”
What are you overall thoughts on inquiry-based learning? How do you define it? What impact does it have on your practice?
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