I recently asked how my district was using the term inquiry with respect to student learning and how this term was used in relation of other terms currently in vogue in education. These are usually attached to the word -based, pedagogical concepts like problem-based or project-based or resource-based learning and, most recently, challenge-based learning, associated with Apple and Discovery Education. What is the difference and how much depth of understanding is there amongst educators about when it is appropriate to use one term over another? More importantly, I would like to know if some concepts are being used interchangeably and thus incorrectly, whether some students are more receptive to one over another, and so on.
Let me be honest. My real concern is that the word inquiry is being enthusiastically embraced and over-used in a very shallow and cursory way with respect to student learning. I can certainly explain what inquiry-based learning is. It is a student-centred learning approach; it is designed to prompt students’ good questions and to scaffold them through to meaningful learning, not just to find answers but to discover their powers of learning for themselves. It is not so much a linear process as a way of learning that is recursive, thoughtful, collaborative, and powerful. Inquiry-based learning is deeply linked to developing skills that are grounded in information literacy -- including such things as seeking and evaluating sources of information and making choices about which tools and strategies work best for arriving at, organizing, and sharing the findings. It is also a way of teaching in which the teacher moves “to the side” and trusts the process enough, knowing that deeply engaged students will find answers that the teacher may not already know. Good inquiry-based learning is observable -- students are engaged -- and it owes something to Czikszentmihalyi!
There are many models, some of which have been around since the 1990s when I completed my TL diploma: Kuhlthau et al's Guided Inquiry, Eisenberg and Berkowitz's commercial Big6, BC-based Points of Inquiry (Ekdahl et al, based on the Stripling model with a nod to Kuhlthau), the Alberta Focus on Inquiry or Ontario Together for Learning models and so on. The Writing Process and the Scientific Method align perfectly with Inquiry. All are essentially the same except for terms and numbers of steps. And each does something slightly different: Kuhlthau, for example, identified the affective dimension – students engaged in inquiry will likely experience some anxiety during the inquiry process, and that’s okay.
I become more concerned about whether the current use of the term inquiry is "deep" enough when I hear it described as students asking good questions and then going to Google to find the answers. Or they ask good questions and are sent to the textbook to find the answers. Or once I heard, “You just google and google deeper!” I have also had teacher-librarians’ use of the inquiry model discounted and cast aside as “just research” by a very keen academic newly discovering inquiry or as “just for teacher-librarians.” Mostly these comments reveal the need for deeper conversations.
TLs have been using one or another of the inquiry models for years. What I know is that one model in a district is both sufficient and optimal ... kids learn early to think about one model and apply it across the disciplines and through the grades, simply becoming more sophisticated inquirers at they move from K to 12. There should be as few steps as possible (a 12-step model such as one I saw not long ago is surely too much to expect kids to remember) and clear, simple terms that trigger considerations of which skills, strategies, tools, and resources to choose.
Teacher Inquiry works exactly the same way. Unquestionably, teachers who engage in their own professional inquiry, pursuing questions about their own work that are personally meaningful and important, trusting the process, and weathering the anxieties, are better prepared to support their students through the challenges of inquiry.
We need to undertake the conversation and unpack these concepts, not only to be clear about the terms and to distinguish which works best in whatever situations with which kinds of learners, not only to understand the full potential for engaging young learners in new kinds of learning, but to illuminate and share in what is exciting about making the instructional shift.