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

Inquiries designed to provide differentiation must be designed to offer support for those learners at risk while challenging those who require extended learning opportunities.  Through a differentiated inquiry, the teacher can explore similar contexts with all learners, but challenge students to achieve different levels of outcome depending on the students' individual abilities. Differentiating research tasks can be as simple as setting different questions of different complexities for different groups- colour coding works well here- or using three level guides.  A single research task of graded complexity (perhaps using Bloom et al) could be begun and ended at different stages by different groups who then report back to the whole class or to jigsaw groups.

When designing differentiated inquiry, it is useful to consider the aims outlined by Tomlinson (1999): Begin by considering student differences; Focus on multiple intelligences and learning styles; Vary teaching strategies and learning environments; Focus on essential skills and the making of meaning of key concepts and principles; Aim to develop self-reliant learners; and Develop a collaborative approach to problem solving. Such an approach is consistent with the call by the Australian Secondary Principal’s Association for curriculum in the middle years to “emphasise the successful acquisition of broad general knowledge, skills and attitudes, in an iterative process which is relevant, accessible and flexible in its pedagogy.  Students should not be encouraged to overspecialize but rather engage in a wide range of texts, materials, technologies and learning experiences” (1994?) As part of the Maleny investigation, students visited the proposed site and surrounding areas as part of a field trip, surveyed residents, and listening to a guest speaker from the development company as part of their investigation. An inquiry approach encourages multiple literacies and critical evaluation of multiple source of evidence.

If learners are to become reflective and self directed learners, they need to have continual opportunities to goal set, to critically evaluate their investigation methodology and to work collaboratively to offer meaningful advice to peers. Students exposed to a range of thinking strategies and who are aware of their own thinking processes will participate in more effective learning. Teachers need to make the learning processes in which students engage explicit to students, and to encourage students to reflect on the thinking process in which they are engaged. Such metacognition (and metalanguage to discuss the process) empowers students to more ably self-evaluate their progress and goal set for future learnings.  An inquiry approach provides an ideal opportunity to guide students through critical evaluation of their own journeys as learners and help develop in learners the skills they require to refocus their inquiry processes, and to better synthesise their findings.

Because students do not learn skills and concepts in the same way, the strategies that may be used to help develop a concept, may not be sufficiently explicit to develop the skills a student requires to undertake an inquiry investigation. Inquiry skills need to be taught explicitly (Waring, 2001:4).  Strategies such as modeling and scaffold guides, and collaborative involvement in joint constructions, are very effective in helping students identify and develop the skills required to investigate a question in a meaningful way.  It is important that the teacher has a realistic understanding of the sub-skills involved in a particular inquiry investigation, and that appropriate plans are developed to determine the order and rate at which these sub-skills need to be taught, as well as the most appropriate strategy through which they will be taught (Kiddey, 2001:3). This can be very problematic for teachers unfamiliar with changes in curriculum direction, such as the inquiry approach.  This issue was highlighted by student feedback to teachers following the one unit, with one student tactfully identifying the problem in her suggestion for ways we could improve the unit: “Make very sure all teachers know how to teach each part and that all of us are at the same stage, because students in other classes were behind what we were doing or didn’t learn how to do some things, so we had to show them in the boarding house.”  An essential component of successful change process in teaching and learning must be the re-skilling of teachers, and a willingness by teachers to engage in such professional renewal.

This shift in emphasis from a pedagogical approach which is “characterised by the teacher’s role as leader and facilitator, active inquiry by students, and an emphasis on understanding the reasons for social phenomena” (Kemmis, Cole and Suggett, 1983), to the critical approach which is the philosophical basis of the QSCC SOSE Syllabus is problematic for many teachers.  For many teachers, such a reshaping represents quite a dramatic re-evaluation of current practice. Unless this systematic evaluation and exploration is part of a consistent, full school culture, it will place considerable stress on teachers who already feel under threat as a profession. It is particularly challenging for teachers who were educated in the 60s, 70s or even 80s (currently a significant percentage of the teaching population in this country) in that, if they are to come to terms with the needs of learners in the Twenty-first century, they must teach in ways quite alien from the ways in which they themselves were taught (Hargraves, 1994: 99) and which may well have formed the foundation of their philosophy of curriculum.  This is particularly true of a shift towards an inquiry approach to learning.

In particular, a move to an inquiry approach poses most problems for teachers whose pedagogical style more closely aligns with a Vocational neo-classical or ‘conservative’ (Hoepper & Land, 1996: pg85): a style characterized by the undisputed authority of the teacher, the relative passivity of the students, and the unproblematic transmission of authorised knowledge.” (Kemmis, Cole and Suggett, 1983).  Very few teachers may have been exposed to relevant, productive in-service in how to implement an inquiry approach to learning in the classroom, and many graduates lack the experience to create the necessary praxis between the theory learned at university and the practical challenges which face them in the school environment. As Pinar points out, "For many teachers, current school reform might feel like being yanked around yet one time more." (1992: 229).   However, it is only through risk taking in the classroom and individual critical reflection upon the successes and failures resulting from changed practice, and collaborative sharing of these reflections that transformation of teaching practice is possible.

A school culture which prioritises and provides adequate time for such reflection is necessary, as is the development of reflective skills of teachers. The 1990 School's Council report, “Australia's Teachers: An Agenda for the Next Decade”,  claims that "the approach to teacher education to date has been too narrow and restrictive, and in a number of cases, not closely enough related to reflective thinking about the practice of teaching" (Bransgrove,, 1992: 2) In order to deal with these difficulties, it is necessary for "teachers to be active participants in ... creating new knowledge about teaching and learning" (Sergiovanni & Starratt, 1993: 116).


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