There are words that embody concepts so sophisticated they have perplexed philosophers for millennia. Others represent controversial ideas that have brought on wars and revolutions. Still some are the supposed key to enlightenment and spiritual salvation. Yet these terms are bandied about conversation or used in writing with seeming authority but no matter how often the words appear in daily life—whether in an article, from a talking head, or at a water cooler chat—the speaker and listener all too rarely take the time to agree on a common definition. This empties the vocabulary of meaning, leaving an empty shell that impedes thinking. How can interlocutors be certain they have a common understanding of words like democracy, freedom, or critical thinking if they don’t take the time to define these terms, so full of weight and controversy? Without a common understanding, intellectual exchanges are impoverished and outcomes diminished.
One such weighty word is inquiry. Inquiry is used in education all the time, whether in marketing brochures, school mission statements, or curricular plans. Most initiates will agree that an inquiry-based approach comprises of some form of essential question and is designed to promote student exploration and curiosity, with the majority of the learning coming not from lecture but from students’ active participation. (How many weighty terms did that previous sentence contain?) Yet these notions remain amorphous and are in no way enough to map how learning will happen. Inquiry may stem from asking questions—who should pose these questions is a discussion in itself—but then what? It is not enough to expound the value of student-led learning or defend the notion that the adult in the room should be seen as a facilitator and no longer as the instructor. It is time to come to a common understanding of what inquiry is and what it is not. Perhaps the following ideas can be the start of a meaningful conversation that shapes the culture of The Harbour School for all its stakeholders.
Inquiry is not “discovery learning” where students engage in a free-for-all centered around whatever they choose to do, without structure or direction. Inquiry is meant to be highly thoughtful, investigative, and purposeful, and if done properly, leads to creativity and exploration, but within an intellectual, collaborative context. Inquiry does not mean hands-on, at least not exclusively. Much of the process of inquiry involves discussion, exchange of ideas, and quiet self-reflection. The dangers of over-enthusiasm about experiential learning is that the latter is exalted without systematically relating it to deeper and broader questions. Inquiry does not mean the end of instruction. There is an adult in the room who usually has enough professional and life experience to impart knowledge and skills to students and knows how to strike the balance between explicit curricular objectives and student interest and autonomy.
Students may have fun building a solar panel and becoming competent with a soldering iron, but the learning will remain superficial unless they tackle questions such as “why is it so difficult to transition to renewable energies?” In doing so, young scientists grapple with chemistry, physics, public policy, construction, history, literacy skills, advertising, marketing, entrepreneurship, trade, and every other facet of human existence. Approaching learning through a meaningful (essential!) question opens up an entire world where traditional disciplines fuse into one and become action through design, creation, and reflection.
Counterintuitively, inquiry should focus on problem generation not just problem solving. While problem solving can often be a creative experience, it can also be transactional. In its most basic form, a teacher hands a student a math worksheet full of math problems that the pupil solves and hands back. The student may demonstrate skills and perhaps consolidates learning, but that is where the process usually stops. Generating problems and then solving them is a much richer experience. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur who identifies a market gap and founds a start-up to fill this gap through a revolutionary technology has generated a problem (identifying a need) and solved it (through her product). Her next action is to predict where the market will head so that her company can improve on this product. The rule of thumb in inquiry is: a student should come out with more questions than answers and develop a desire to explore as many of these questions as possible.
None of the above provides much of a map to how to conduct inquiry-based learning. There is very little on praxis and no step-by-step instructions. In order to start the aforementioned conversation, I propose that inquiry learning be defined as a learning experience that tackles authentic (real-world) problems through open-ended questions that require investigation using real-world resources so students can create arguments and solutions they defend after undergoing a process of dialogue and discussion, evaluating multiple perspectives.
That is a mouthful. So many weighty words. Instead of leaving all this esotericism to the illusion of common understanding, I propose we unpack this concept, change it, improve on it, reject it, manipulate it, produce with it and ask more questions so that we all participate in a dynamic culture of learning that values the pursuit of personal, intellectual, and socio-emotional growth. This is our mission and perhaps the school’s next foray into inquiry.