Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Inquiry learning - 3 reasons why

A few months ago, a rather juicy discussion erupted on a Facebook teacher group I belong to based on the graph above. One of the comments that really stood out for me was from another educator who said:
"It's evidence like this that makes me worried about the 'new' style 'open learning environments' that seem to be the vogue for schools being built at the moment. Is the 'student led, open inquiry' style of teaching going to erode progress that has been made?"
It seems that inquiry learning is often at the pointy end of the debate when discussions of academic achievement are had. Direct teacher instruction still seems to work best. The thing that many people forget however is that this works best for some things, certainly not for everything. Hattie's work in Visible Learning (as far as I understand it) looks particularly at achievement data. As does most other research because achievement is easy to measure. The thing with this research, is that it does not look at all the other measures of success, like how happy a student is, their sense of autonomy over their learning, how successful the student is beyond a school context, and most importantly, how passionate the student remains about learning. Although academic achievement may contribute to these things, it is important that we see its limitations, particularly when we start passing judgements on different and new styles of learning.

One of those new styles of learning that is frequently under fire is inquiry learning. Personally, I am a big advocate for inquiry learning because as I see it, there are a number of reasons why inquiry learning is appropriate for this day and age:

Inquiry develops student ability to understand the ‘culture of inquiry’ within a discipline or paradigm and use it to problem solve:Inter-disciplinary learning might be trendy right now, but it is important not to forget the many good things that each learning area does offer. Science has a particular way of asking questions, a particular way of seeing the world. It is precisely because of this 'culture of inquiry' in science, that we have been able to make all the stellar advances in medicine, space travel, technology etc. The same can be said for the 'culture of inquiry' within other disciplines too. Hence, inquiry learning allows students not just to learn about the knowledge that science, history, etc. has gained through its particular cultures of inquiry, but it allows them to learn to use this to seek answers and solve problems for themselves, by drawing on each discipline's culture of inquiry. Hence, they learn how knowledge is constructed in that discipline. 
A simpler way to think about this is that each discipline offers a range of toolboxes with which to solve problems. We should not just be teaching the students what each toolbox has built already, but rather, how they can use the toolbox to build and repair things for themselves. Additionally, because inter-disciplinary studies have become increasingly important, (eg. climate change, nanotechnology, etc.) we should also be developing students' abilities to mix tools across toolboxes, but do so deliberately knowing full well the power and limitations of each tool.

Develops student ability to critique their research decisions:In the post-truth age of fake news and social media, the age old philosophical question of 'how do you know?' becomes infinitely more relevant and critical for the everyday person. And so, the methods by which we find truth and knowledge becomes critical. If students have spent their entire lives consuming content that is provided by schools, they will be inculcated to consume without question elsewhere too. In order to understand the difference between opinion, perspective, information, fact and fiction, we must understand what actually counts as knowledge, the context in which we can rely on this knowledge, and the limitations of knowledge. And learning about this is not the same as developing the capacity to do this, the former just provides more content to consume. Hence, inquiry learning if done well, develops student capacity for critical thinking about far more than a content or concept focussed question easily examined in an exam. 
To get back to the toolbox metaphor, students need to learn to use each of the tools in their toolbox for the right reason, knowing that a hammer and a mallet although similar in appearance, are not the same.

Develops student ability to critique the validity of ideas, models, representations and sources:
So your students are able to navigate to a trusty source of knowledge on the internet, or can spot a biased article. You didn't really think that was enough did you? There is not a discipline under the sun that claims that its knowledge is absolute or complete. Hence, we should be developing students' ability not to think in absolutes or in final answers, but rather, to think critically in understanding the strengths and limitations of all ideas, models, representations, perspectives, opinions and knowledge.
This not only contributes to students' understanding of disciplinary concepts, but it might also contribute in helping them become better democratic citizens. After all, in the world's current political climate, I think it is safe to say that we need more people who can critically evaluate ideas, take on multiple perspectives, and recognise limitations of ideas (just think Trump's border wall!). The ability to recognise the limitations of knowledge, also enables students to see where they might contribute in the world beyond social media and click-bait garbage. If we want students to see and live beyond the instant and momentary famous of Instagram and Snapchat, then surely we must show them other ways they can contribute and leave their mark in the world? 
To use our toolbox metaphor again... Not every space that we construct with our tools is of equal quality, and even the best quality can never be perfect. There is always room for improvement. Being able to see the strengths and weaknesses in the spaces that we have constructed allows us to make better judgements about what to use a space for, how to use it and even, when not to use it.

In reference then to the fellow teacher who asked the question at the start of this post; 'Is the 'student led, open inquiry' style of teaching going to erode progress that has been made?' I have to ask, what might content driven, direct teacher instruction be eroding?