Inquiring towards Innovation

As an educator, librarian, researcher and learner, I have engaged with and taught about inquiry learning in many ways. Valuing openness and access, I share some of this teaching online; here you can see the most recent iteration of LCN616 Inquiry Learning, which I am currently teaching.  I place a great deal of value in inquiry learning, however each time I speak with teachers about inquiry, I hear similar responses;

“I just wish I could fit it in”…

“it’s great, but we just don’t have the time”…

“How do I take this approach and ensure the students are still prepared for high stakes testing?”

Sadly, at this point, there are no easy responses to these observations and questions. Without a school culture that values and supports it, inquiry learning can often be placed in the too hard basket. However I continue to believe that inquiry learning is a pedagogical approach that must be championed.

Therefore, I wanted to share a post explaining my personal beliefs about inquiry learning. Since (rather naively) developing my own inquiry approach over ten years ago, my understandings of its philosophy have greatly expanded. As I have engaged in my own personal inquiry process through my PhD (perhaps the most open of inquiries?) and as I walk with teachers through their own inquiries as they complete their assessment for LCN616, my belief in, and knowledge of this approach continues to grow.
Here’s why:

Inquiry is about finding a beautiful question and investigating it.

A beautiful question is an ambitious, yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something…and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.                                       Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question, p.8

One could argue that human knowledge and development as we know it emerges from the process of inquiry learning. Wondering, imagining and questioning leads us to investigate, explore, test and ultimately, construct new knowledge. Often, our new knowledge inspires new questions, and so the cycle continues throughout our lives.

Inquiry learning is how we learnt to walk and talk. We wondered at what we saw others doing – engaging in conversations, moving from place to place at speed – and challenged ourselves to do the same. Through imitation, trial and error and with the feedback of others, we slowly developed the capabilities of language and mobility. Spurred on by our successes, and excited to go further, we initiated new inquiries – why walk when we could run? Why not string words together to speak in sentences?

Inquiry learning is a pedagogical approach that captures our innate ability to question, investigate and iterate. Based upon questioning frameworks, information literacy and action research, it is a rich and authentic way for learners to construct meaningful knowledge and understanding. It is a complex approach to learning that recognises the learner as an individual with autonomy and already existing beliefs, understandings and experiences. It does not see the learner as an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

France in XXI Century. School
Jean Marc Cote (if 1901) or Villemard (if 1910) [Public domain]
The image above is one of a series released in the early 20th century, imagining life in the year 2000, to celebrate the World’s Fair. The image depicts a (male) teacher, grinding up ‘knowledge’ in the form of books, which are transmitted electronically directly into the brains of (male) students.

This is the antithesis of inquiry learning. It assumes that students must be filled with a fixed body of knowledge or information, identified by, and currently in the possession of, the teacher. Students demonstrate that they have learned when they reproduce this fixed body of knowledge.

In 2019, information is abundant and fluid. The teacher is not the sole source of knowledge, and the value of demonstrating learning through reproduction is obsolete. Students must be able to formulate questions, must have the information literacy to navigate complex knowledge networks and the capability to evaluate, synthesise, remix and reconstruct their findings in response to their inquiry.

All of this rests on robust traditional literacy and numeracy. Inquiry learning is not either/or when it comes to content and process – it is a solid combination of both. Good teachers know this. They understand the art of inquiry.

However, in an environment of high stakes testing, and a tightly framed focus on narrow outcomes, teachers may feel that they have little choice but to transmit content which can be accurately reproduced in exam conditions. Boring and disengaging for both student and teacher – but seen by so many as ‘what works’.

This is in direct contradiction of the most recent Gonski report, which found that to help students build their resilience and capacity to navigate our unpredictable and constantly changing society, greater attention must be directed to the general capabilities outlined in the Australian Curriculum: critical and creative thinking, ethical and intercultural understanding, personal and social capabilities, digital literacies as well as literacy and numeracy.

Inquiry offers students the ability to develop these capabilities, while building their content knowledge. It allows for students to engage with learning experiences that are far more reflective of how we learn outside of the four walls of the classroom. It recognises that students are all different, and celebrates this difference by refusing to see them as empty vessels in a one size fits all factory model of schooling.

Inquiry learning is not easy. That’s the honest truth.
It requires careful and complex planning and ongoing scaffolding from the teacher.
It demands more of the learner.
It does not view learning as a commodity.

Inquiry builds innovation, imagination and curiosity.
It  respects the learner as an individual and as a capable being.

It allows learners to love learning.

What more could we ask of education than this?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations of inquiry learning and inquiry pedagogy. Do you agree? Disagree? Why? Let’s chat!



3 thoughts on “Inquiring towards Innovation”

  1. Thanks for this great article, Kay.
    I have always approached teaching and learning from an inquiry model and continue to support teachers in exploring ways to do this. I believe we can (and must) fight for inquiry while balancing the competing pressures from other sources to focus on hammering literacy and numeracy, with the main aim seemingly being to improve the school’s performance on NAPLAN.
    As you rightly point out, kids need literacy and numeracy skills in order to tackle inquiries and investigations. I would just love to see the motivation for teaching literacy and numeracy to switch to a desire to equip students to explore their world and to be able to communicate, create and collaborate efficiently and effectively – not just passing a basic benchmark on a test.
    I think that teaching literacy and numeracy for the sake of meeting external targets and arbitrary goals set for teachers and schools is killing the creativity of teachers and students alike.
    We are seriously underestimating the abilities of our children and impeding curiosity and creativity if we don’t embrace their natural curiosity through inquiry learning.

    1. Jane, I couldn’t agree more. My post was inspired by the unit I’m teaching and also the media coverage of Naplan. It is upsetting to hear how ‘schools are failing’ and ‘students are disengaged’ or ‘performing poorly’ when I see so much evidence of the incredible dedication and commitment of educators and the amazing things that students can achieve…and yet the questions never seem to be how can we reimagine learning in a way that recognises the incredible changes wrought in society and in our students’ lives, as members of that society.

      I agree that the narrow focus on benchmarks and test results narrows our understanding of education in a way that robs everyone of the joy of learning. Such a sad state of affairs!

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response and for sharing it so generously 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.