Tag Archives: inquiry

Education as Inquiry

Mark Priestley wrote a perceptive piece about the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in the Scotsman (link) that rightly attracted some attention among the followers of Pedagoo. He points out that the CfE might not be fit for purpose. Priestley admits to mixed feelings on this. I have mixed feelings also but their cause is less, I think, to do with the philosophy, experiences and outcomes, and CfE documents directly but with the lingering, inappropriate metaphors that are still ‘hanging-in’ from pre-CfE days. There has been discussion here of the harmful effects of the ‘education as a factory system‘ and ‘teacher as technician‘ metaphors on learning and also human dignity. Is there a better metaphor? Returning to an earlier applied metaphor of ‘education as initiation into worthwhile activities’ may, it was suggested, help. That, of course, leaves us with the problem of deciding what are the educationally worthwhile activities we wish to initiate pupils/ students (in line with what seems to becoming international convention, I will use ‘students’ from now) into. For the purposes here, let us assume that the capacities and experiences outlined in the CfE at least form the basis for worthwhile activities. One worthwhile activity strongly suggested in the CfE documents is ‘active learning.’

Active Learning
I confess to having some difficulty with this term as it implies that the opposite, passive learning, occurs more often at present in our classrooms. Indeed many writers refer to passive learning and include rote learning as an example. But rote learning requires activity-the activity of actively memorising. It seems to me that most learning in schools that is to do with what is in the curriculum is ‘active.’ We don’t teach concepts, theories, how to interpret literature, understanding the narratives of history, how to carry out experiments, and so on through methods based on conditioning. Learning through conditioning would be more of a passive process than rote learning. If conditioning occurs in educational contexts, it is for other reasons than teaching for the typical knowledge and understanding found in school subjects. The problem is that some forms of active learning are less productive than others: rote learning is regarded as less useful than learning for understanding, for example. It is also hard to remain actively learning, unless the teacher is a very gifted orator, through a whole hour of dictated notes. The context demands a form of active learning that is difficult to sustain.

The mistake is to equate physical passivity (sitting still) with mental or cognitive passivity (not trying to listen or process what is being said). We all have experienced students (perhaps only a few) who actively focus on everything we say, process it for real understanding, and easily get ‘A’ grades in the national exams. For them active learning in ‘traditional teaching’ is easy. They are always cognitively active in our classes, however, we teach. For the rest of us, in the same conditions, it requires more concentration than we are always able to muster. It is not that passive learning takes over when taught through what are generally called transmission methods. We may hardly learn at all as we switch off and think about other things. Then we have to revise harder for the exams and resort again to rote learning- that experience of, “I don’t remember doing this!” That is, if we bother at all. Not all our students appear to. Nevertheless, those students that are learning anything at all are being active somewhere and somehow. To repeat, I am arguing that they do not learn anything in the way of conceptual knowledge and understanding, even in rote forms, through being passive.

So, what form of active learning might be more widely useful in supporting the learning of more of our pupils/students in ways that we value (supporting ‘real’ understanding, for example)? One candidate is inquiry.

The European Union is concerned about the supply of scientists generally and levels of scientific literacy in the wider population. As part of the solution, it sees the wider use of inquiry- based learning and teaching as being desirable. This, they believe, would foster greater engagement in, and enthusiasm for, science. Accordingly, the EU has funded international projects which aim to support science teachers, and also those in STEM subjects generally, to use more inquiry-based methods (the word ‘more’ is important, as we shall see below). One project is S-TEAM (Science Teacher Education Advanced Methods). The reflections below arise from the author’s participation in that project but do not necessarily represent any consensus within it.

First, if the EU is correct in thinking that inquiry is supportive of greater engagement in STEM subjects, then that is likely to be the case across the whole curriculum. Unfortunately, ‘inquiry’ is also a contested concept- it is surprisingly difficult to get an agreed definition. The difficulty in my view is that, from an observer’s perspective, there are many forms of activity that make up many different ways of inquiring. That does not prevent academics attempting to define what inquiry teaching would be so that we can categorise activities as being inquiry or not. There is an alternative to this academic game that teachers from East Lothian adopted in an S-TEAM sponsored professional learning module (PISCES). They used the strategy of thinking what inquiry would be from the learner’s (not the teachers’ or academics’) perspective.

Any lesson is an investigation from the pupils’ point of view if, during it, they are exploring their own questions or having their own questions answered. (PPK Journal Paper Page 14, see also, PISCES Book Chapter)

From this perspective, inquiry is not a teaching method as such, but a mental orientation that we try to encourage and support in pupils. Our exceptional pupils referred to above already adopt this orientation most, if not at all, times. From this simple point there follows a set of conditions that education needs to adopt and strive for to support inquiry. These conditions apply not only to teachers, but also to policy makers, curriculum developers, academic researchers, inspectors – all of us. They add up to seeing education itself as a shared process of inquiry.

Supporting the inquiry orientation in students: education as inquiry:

1. Adopt the pupils’ perspective.
If we take as a first step, the same one as above and think of inquiry as a learning orientation in which the students think of all lessons as being contexts in which they have questions in mind and are seeking answers to those questions (whether through listening, group work, discussions, independent research activities, or whatever), then encouraging that orientation and making it possible is our first step in supporting inquiry. We need to find ways to support our students in consistently taking this learning orientation. To do so, makes all our practice ‘more‘ inquiry-based.

Not necessarily easy though. However, that it can be achieved in various ways by teachers carrying out experiments in their on practice is illustrated by the work of the above mentioned teachers (see the above links). Given the right support (which may include conceptual tools to help in analysing the problem in its local forms) and encouragement, teachers do not need direction or prescription from above to solve such problems. In the points below, we take this as an aim of our educational system and suggest what it can do to support it. However, note we already have identified two points, towards justifying the title of this post – ‘education as inquiry.’

A) We aim to support our students in consistently adopting this learning orientation of having questions in mind and exploring possible answers to them
B) Teachers are inquiring also. They are inquiring into how to provide support for student inquiry as defined here. Teachers, from this perspective, are inquirers into solving problems of supporting student inquiry in their own classrooms for (or with) their own particular groups of students.

2. Get our thinking in step with the above aim.
There are several aspects to this. First, we (all of us, not just teachers) have to actively ditch the factory and teacher as technician metaphors referred to above. Apart from the demeaning aspects on both teacher and students discussed elsewhere, (link) they are incompatible with students as inquirers. Taking the students’ perspective also implies some autonomy for the students as they plan for and research, discuss and share their solutions to questions and problems. It also implies autonomy for them in deciding when to ask an expert (the teacher, for example) and when to sit and listen to her. To facilitate and support these activities, metaphors that reduce students to objects to be manipulated are, to say the least, unsatisfactory – they do not facilitate thinking about how to support our students in self-direction and in working towards developing their strengths and reaching their aspirations. The prevalence of these metaphors through our current assessment models un!
dermines any rhetoric about students taking responsibility for their learning. Students who do this, and teachers who support it, do so despite the system, not because of it.

And this brings us to the next point. Thinking that is appropriately applied to students – to support them in achieving a learning orientation in which they consistently formulate and seek answers to questions) is also appropriate to apply to teachers. Externally applied quality indicators and standards of competence undermine any rhetoric about teachers taking responsibility for their learning and practice. Indicators and competencies are touted as ‘tools for self-evaluation’ and may have a role in this respect. However, as we all know, in practice they are used as tools of direction and control. So, achieving education as inquiry means loosening up on heavy, top-down managerialism and thinking more in terms of supporting teacher inquiry into solving, and developing conceptual frameworks or theories of practice around this, the problems of supporting student inquiry that they face in their own contexts. One size does not fit all, if we accept this argument. Teachers are ‘the professionals in situ’.

Finally, we have to be consistent in our thinking and the language we use. The factory and technician metaphors have been with us for some time now and have shaped our thinking, even when we have tried to resist them – probably, because we have no choice but to live by them in our teaching lives, as we fill in reports, plan lessons, engage in improvement planning, and so on. So even though teachers probably do not a really think of their students as objects and education in terms of ‘throughput’, it is not always easy to act or talk accordingly. Our language often does not match our thinking. Here are a couple of things that I have caught myself doing that is inconsistent with the thinking advocated here. You can reflect on your own.

A) Thinking in terms of delivering a module. This should be thinking in terms of supporting learning (my own, as well as those persuaded to participate) through joint engagement in a module.
B) Using language such as, “Developing my students’ thinking”, instead of, “Supporting my students in developing their thinking”.

I am sure there would be many more examples, if I was aware of them.

3. Make sure our language is in line with the direction we want our thinking to go.
Although this has already arisen in the above, it seems worth stating it as a point on its own. If we do not achieve this, we can undermine our best efforts and it is not always as easy as we imagine.

4. Align all our roles
We have already seen that if students are to adopt consistently the mental orientation we are here referring to as inquiry from their perspective, teachers become inquirers into how consistently to support the students in achieving and maintaining that orientation. Teacher and student roles align in this way. But teachers and students do not act alone. There are others who need to align their roles- at least, the following.

A) School management need to inquire into how best to support the teachers in the school in their inquiries into how best to support their students’ inquires.

B) Local Authority education personnel need to inquire into how best to support school management in inquiring into supporting their teachers’ inquiries.

C) Politicians and national educational bodies (including inspectors) need to inquire into how best to provide the conditions that allow all the above inquiries, and educational research below, to flourish.

D) Educational researchers need to inquire into how to support all the above in their various forms of inquiry. For teachers, I and colleagues have argued this does not involve prescriptions but tools and insights that support them in inquiring into solving problems in their own contexts. It is assumed that this would apply to the rest.

Innovations would happen at all levels. However, the innovations by the teachers would be those that supported student inquiry directly. The others’ value would lie in more indirect support for this

5. Understand that these inquiries are life-long or, at least, working-life long.
Is there room in education for anyone who thinks they have all the answers and can impose them on others?

Education as inquiry
Achieve the above and Education has become a process of shared inquiry. Is that the metaphor we are looking for? I invite you to discuss. Or should I say, ‘ I invite you to share in inquiring’?