Issues Associated with Introducing an Inquiry Approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment in a Queensland School: Part Four

A key concept associated with the success of Inquiry Based Investigation which is often underestimated is the focus upon a real-life problem. For example, in 2004, a Year Eight Geography investigation was designed to involve students in researching the issues associated with a real-life proposal at that time to build a Woolworths at Maleny in the Queensland hinterland. The research task asked them to evaluate the proposal in terms of the best result for the region in terms of environmental and economic sustainability as part of a Geography investigation.  This investigation was the year 8 students first experience with the use of criteria for evaluation and a long-term geography research culminating in a formal report. The investigation included a field work excursion to the site, where students undertook to test creek water quality and survey residents and business owners about the proposal, as well as map the existing businesses. Additionally, a representative from an Environmental group opposing the construction was invited to speak to the students. We were surprised when a representative from Woolworths requested equal time to speak to the students to present their argument for the proposal. This was duly organised. The success of the project, both in terms of student engagement and quality of research was ample evidence to the value of inquiry-based learning (IBL).

All inquiry process should involve students in analysing issues, framing and focusing research questions, identifying possible sources of evidence and then selected critically from these, collecting and organising evidence, analysing and evaluating the evidence, sythesising and communicating conclusions, possibly taking action, and reflecting on all of these stages in an ongoing manner.  Inquiry based learning is a learner centred, problem-based approach “where a case problem is presented to students who are asked to apply reasoning, questioning, researching, and critical thinking to find a solution to the problem. It is ‘focused, experiential learning (minds-on, hands-on) organized around the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems’ (Torp and Sage, 2002, p. 15). The emphasis of problem-based learning is not on the outcome but on the process, with a focus on students learning to become self-reliant and eventually independent.” (Cerezo, 2004).  Because of this emphasis on developing students’ capacity to think in an independent and strategic manner, an inquiry approach to learning is entirely consistent with research in effective middle years practice.

Barratt (1998: 30) argues that adolescents need learning challenges in an environment characterised by high expectations and constructive, honest feedback.  An inquiry approach is based upon an intellectual challenge based on real world issues with a focus on process rather than solely upon product.  An inquiry involves students conferencing at regular intervals with peers and with teachers to gain feedback and plan future progress.  Inquiry learning is fundamental to the study of History and Science. It emphasises process as well as product, moving away from goals based upon the acquisition of facts to the development of understandings about concepts and generalisations. Inquiry learning develops students’ investigative and thinking skills and contributes to their ability to participate effectively in society. It can also contribute to enhancing self-esteem by encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.” (Gordon, 1999).  A true inquiry approach to learning achieves many of the goals associated with effective pedagogy in the middle years (Erikson, 1995): it integrates information in a meaningful way and at an abstract level, thereby stimulating higher order thinking in a real world or realistic context.  Well designed inquiries enhance student self efficacy and capacity to operate as lifelong learners due to their emphasis on student agency.  In an effective inquiry, the emphasis should be on the student as investigator. 

Students begin by identifying what they know about the inquiry question in a constructivist manner, frame questions which they will use to gather data and reflect upon this process in a critical manner as the investigation progresses.  If higher order thinking and self regulatory behaviours are to be developed in learners, there must be a move away from a traditional, conservative transmission philosophy of teaching, learning and assessment.  Inquiry proved an appropriate educational direction to focus this transformation.  The types of ‘inquiry’ that are called for in the Years 1 to 10 Australian Curriculum are aligned with a socially critical pedagogy (Nayler, 1999).

In exploring the intersections between research into effective Gifted education and Middle Years education, Carol Ann Tomlinson (1992) identified 12 key shared beliefs.  Effective Gifted education and Middle Years education must be interdisciplinary, foster student self-direction and interdependence, promote self understanding, incorporate basic skills, relevant to the learner and thus based on the study of significant problems, student centered, promote student discovery, value group interaction, built on student interest, encourage critical and creative exploration of ideas and promote student self-evaluation. The development of inquiry units based on the aspects and processes of inquiry outlined in the new syllabus documents allow teachers to engage middle years students as never before in the construction of understandings, as apposed to the rote recall of another’s perspective.   Its emphasis on reflection at all stages of the process ensures a focus on developing metacognitive skills which was lacking in previous models of middle years teaching.  

Every learner needs a clear understanding of what is to be learned and how that learning will progress.  Without this understanding, “the learner loses interest, motivation, and comes to see learning as a process devised by others that is trivial, irrelevant, and a waste of time” (Van Tassel-Basks,1992). In the same way, students need also to understand the connectedness between what they will investigate and their own world- either as individuals or as participants in an interdependent world.  Inquiry based investigations can help students achieve such connectedness when the research focus is based upon significant questions which have real life implications or which they themselves devise.  Inquiry investigations require a critical approach to deconstruction and construction of understandings.  “Critical classrooms are characterized by more democratic relations between teachers and students, by high levels of collaboration, and by learning that involves ideological critique.” (Kemmis, Cole and Suggett, 1983).  If middle years initiatives are to be effective, curriculum redesign must address, especially, the needs of those students most disengaged by the learning process during adolescence.

The only truly effective way to do this is to increase the capacity of every teacher to identify student needs and appropriately differentiate curriculum in response to these needs.  This is as true for gifted students as it is for those students with learning difficulties.  Independent student inquiries allow teachers to provide appropriate differentiation by providing opportunities for student choice in inquiry question, depth of response or genre of presentation, and allow students to develop skills of independence and initiative.  Guided class inquiries, on the other hand, allow students to work collaboratively to share findings and create joint constructions of understandings.  Both types of inquiry are essential in the middle years.

William Glasser identified five basic needs which provide govern our choices: belonging and love; power; Freedom; enjoyment, appreciation, fun; and safety and survival. The primary need which drives adolescents is freedom which provides choice.  Inquiry based research can satisfy an adolescent’s need for choice over his or her learning.  Dr Ronald Dahl, University of Pittsburgh, points out that “Adolescents are actively looking for experiences to create intense feelings.”  Other researchers, such as Lawrence Steinberg, agree.  “The parts of the brain responsible for things like sensation seeking are getting turned on in big ways around puberty” but cautions that, at the same time, “the parts [of the brain] for exercising judgment are still maturing throughout the course of adolescence”  (“What Makes Teens Tick?”, 2004: 51).  A structured student inquiry, whether guided or independent, allows both student choice and the opportunities for teachers to provide an appropriate structure to develop student “capacity and confidence to function as autonomous learners in a new knowledge age” (Hill et al, 2002: 101).  It is vital that adolescents are taught strategies to make effective choices without overemphasizing the importance of emotional influences. In addressing the apparent contradictions in planning inquiries that satisfy both what adolescents believe will motivate them and what teachers believe will satisfy their learning needs, we need to clarify if we, as teachers, want to “teach for the society we live in, or … teach for the one we want to see” (Bigelow, Harvey, Karp & Miller, 2001).  The fact that a learning experience pushes students beyond their comfort zone can be a positive aspect of middle years pedagogy.



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