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! An inquiry teaching cycle can guide us to teach a lesson
When it comes to teaching most of us use a familiar repeating pattern or cycle, but this pattern usually lasts a lesson or two. Depending on the framework we are used to there's something we usually do first e.g. hook the students, share the learning intention, or maybe recap what we did last lesson. There's usually a predictable pattern in which we teach. Here's the one I use:
Activate and assess prior knowledge: I do something which promotes the students to think about their prior knowledge and at the same time I assess what they already think they know. E.g. 'Well, how can we find the length of these objects - turn and talk while I listen in and jot down your ideas!"
Agree what successful learning might look like: I set the students success criteria. E.g. By the end of this lesson you should be able to 1. Show me a non standard measure in this classroom, 2. Show a friend how to measure an object using a non standard measure, 3. Compare the length of two objects using a non standard measure.
Plan and investigate: After some prompting and teaching I set the children off to investigate. E.g. students find their own object as a measure, choose objects to measure and get measuring.
Sort out discoveries: I encourage the students to sort out what they have discovered. E.g. "Sandra can you show the class what you used as a non standard measure? Joel can you do the same?"
Reflect on the intended learning: I have the students look back at the question and or success criteria and the students self assess their learning. E.g. "Did you use a non standard measure today? Turn to a friend and tell them what you used as a non standard measure."
Take action: If I am really lucky I might see or hear about students spontaneously applying their learning E.g. "Guess what, I just saw Joel measuring the hop scotch court in the playground with his foot!"
The "Frost Learning Loop" (just a bit tacky) is not really mine to own, nor is it original, nor necessarily the best way to teach. In fact doing it every day would get likely get boring. My point is that, so long as the things we do in our predictable way of teaching promote constructivism, then we are already using inquiry cycles - including 'my' leaning loop!
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!
One last plea
Primary School Principal
Tokyo International School