In this blog post I share some personal 'A-ha!' moments I have made about inquiry learning, which really helped me to make sense of it. I also critique some practices I feel are misguided, misinterpreted or just not practical. This post represents where I currently stand. So here goes...
A-ha! 'Inquiry learning' and 'constructivist approaches' are the same thing!
A-ha! 'Inquiry' and 'constructivism' are not the same thing
Inquiry and constructivism are terms which are often mixed up; I mixed them up in my own mind for years.
Constructivism is a theory of how we learn, while inquiry is pedagogy - how we teach. Constructivism goes on inside our heads, while inquiry is what we observe happening on the outside.
Reputable authors such as the IB and Jaqueline Grennon Brooks confused the issue for me by using terms such as 'constructivist classrooms' and 'constructivist approaches'. What they are really referring to are inquiry classrooms and inquiry approaches.
A-ha! Inquiry is the best methodology for facilitating constructivist learning!
Art Costa defines inquiry as "the methodology of constructivism" and it's true that Inquiry approaches facilitate the construction of meaning. Constructivism put really simply is, active thinking and reflection building on prior knowledge. Inquiry learning is any pedagogy which promotes this.
A-ha! Inquiry is not the only methodology for constructivism!
A-ha! Organizing a whole unit of inquiry around an inquiry 'cycle' doesn't make sense!
Constructivism itself is cyclical. In a messy, lava lamp kind of way we connect new knowledge with our prior knowledge to build understanding as we critique, question and reflect. But a constructivism cycle happens constantly and quickly - not once over the course of a unit nor stage by stage, week by week.
The fact of the matter is, it has been translated as such in schools. And it is little wonder that we get confused, by looking at these cycles you couldn't be blamed for assuming inquiry learning is sequential and cylical. I really liked Kath Murdoch's blog post Busting some myths about the inquiry cycle which discusses this.
A-ha! The inquiry cycle movement may have come from John Dewey!
A-ha! The thing worth keeping from these inquiry cycles isn't the cycle or steps it's the language!
Words found in these cycles such as ‘connection’ ‘reflection’ ‘wonder’ ‘observe’ ‘discover’ and 'investigate' promote learners to think and to construct meaning. I'm all for using language to promote thinking! I wonder though if the time is right to erase these sequential stages and even the term 'inquiry cycle' from our minds, walls and our planners altogether. Don't inquiry cycles and their stages just confuse matters?
A-ha! We don't have to guide students to answer their own questions!
A-ha! Students are often not interested in getting answers to their questions!
A-ha! Many students' questions we couldn't help them answer even if we wanted to!
A-ha! Our job is to turn questions and curiosity into something investigable!
So, if a child notes "Look at those snail's eyes!" we might reply. "Are you sure they are eyes? Can snails see? How could we test to find out?". If a child asks "Why are plants green?" we might reply "I'm not sure, - I think it has something to do with light. Are all parts of a plant green? What about the inside? Do you think plants would stay green if we fed them red things? How could we find out?"
This idea of turning questions into something productive (which challenges a child to make choices and think) is hands on, practical, motivating and builds inquiry skills and dispositions. Inquiry cycles used as a planning tool over the course of a unit do not seem practical, or motivating, nor do they seem build inquiry skills and dispositions any more than just using the language would. Makes sense to me!