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Inquiry learning – another swing of the pendulum

It appears that just about everywhere you look in education at this time, the words “inquiry learning” are being bandied about.  Educationalists looking to improve their career prospects, to win over parents to some new way of running a classroom or to make a living as an educational consultant appear unable to complete an utterance without “inquiry learning” as part of it.  Schools are expending enormous sums of money on staff professional development courses with Inquiry Learning as the focus and even re-organising their schools to develop inquiry-learning approach classrooms as distinct from other more traditional teaching methods.

What is inquiry-learning?  In reality, it has been in schools since Adam went to school and experienced an interesting teacher – the teacher who made Social Studies, in particular, the best subject in the curriculum.

At its least effective, it was visible in the “projects” that my teachers set me to do in the 1960′s – I usually spent a great deal of time researching a really interesting topic of my own choosing, planned a booklet to contain all sorts of pertinent findings, completed the cover and the Index and not much else of any worth.

At its most efficient, it is to be seen in the passion with which pupils seek to deepen their personal understanding about a topic, perhaps one being studied at school, through the seeking of answers to questions that focus the search; and in the honing of higher-thinking skills that are required to analyse, synthesise and display the new learning.

Inquiry-learning is to be seen in many of the “tasks” that teachers set as part of a learning unit in Literature Studies, Science, History & Geography or in the Junior School integrated-learning topics.

There is a great deal of educational “good” in inquiry-learning approaches and information technology really does help achieve depth in both the inquiry and the higher-order thinking that can surround it.

However, in the same way that one asprin cures a headache but a handful of asprin does not solve the world’s issues, an over indulgence of inquiry learning is not the answer in education.

For a start, the novelty of continuously striving to ask deep, meaningful questions about a topic eventually results in question fatigue; children start to resent and resist the process.  As one particularly bright pupil said to me about the inquiry-learning focused classroom that he had come from to Grammar, “You just get sick of the questions!  You just wish the teacher would tell you something for a change!”  An unleavened diet of inquiry-learning is no panacea for education.

Another problem with inquiry-learning is that there is quite of significant lump of core knowledge that does not really fit the process well.  Direct teaching is probably the best way of teaching most mathematical concepts, music, spelling, written expression, and indeed, much of basic science content.  In fact, the ground-breaking research by John Hattie from Auckland University shows that direct teaching of material is the fourth most effective way of improving achievement while inquiry-learning approaches ranked a lowly 86th!!

Which leads me to the great issue that I have with inquiry-based learning – it is a terribly inefficient way of teaching content that affects real learning.  In the cyclical way of continuously re-evaluating the knowledge that has been accumulated, renewing the search and posing further questions, let alone reporting back, enormous numbers of hours are consumed; weeks of precious school time.  Supporters of inquiry-learning will tell you that the time taken is rewarded by the depth of knowledge and thnking; but that is very hard to prove or believe.

The real truth about inquiry-learning approaches is that they are just one of the tools that a good teacher uses, judiciously but not continuously; selectively for an appropriate topic. Certainly a primary school that sets out to embed inquiry-learning as its fundamental framework for learning is going to be producing children who are very likely to be entering secondary school with a less than complete inventory of core knowledge and skills; and from my observation, an inflated belief in the quality of their personal abilities.

I am so very glad to be in the independent school sector where we can chose the degree to which we adopt this latest apparent fad in education.  Schools should be more honest with parents – inquiry learning is not particularly new, is not particularly effective or efficient and is just one method of teaching some material.  It should be part, but only part, of what happens in a classroom.

Unfortunately, education, like fashion, loves a pendulum - here we go on another swing!

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