Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Analysing Inquiry

The PYP is based on an inquiry approach to teaching and learning. Kathy Short, a leading expert on inquiry learning, defines the term as 'a collaborative process of connecting to and reaching beyond current understandings to explore tensions significant to learners'. She identifies five key principles of inquiry learning: (i) Inquiry is natural to learning (ii) Inquiry is based in connection (iii) Inquiry is conceptual (iv) Inquiry is problem-posing and problem-solving (v) Inquiry is collaborative. As I was reading through these I reflected on how I manage these in my own class and how I encourage my grade level team to promote these as well.

Inquiry is natural to learning: This principle relates to the idea that inquiry is the natural way that people learn inside and outside of school contexts. It refers to the individual engaging with what his happening in their life around them until something catches their attention and piques their curiosity or challenges their thinking. I think, as a grade, we do a good job of encouraging our students to combine both the knowledge that they use in their everyday lives with the knowledge that they learn in school. This is important for inquiry learning as it promotes a natural way of learning.

Inquiry is based in connection: This principle is based on the premise that learning needs to have significant points of connection otherwise it can be difficult and tends to be easily forgotten. Connecting students with experiences from their own lives encourages inquiry and allows teachers to observe current understandings. I think we do this quite well. We certainly strive to scaffold learning engagements that allow our students to connect the key concepts with their own experiences. This is commonly done at the beginning stages of a unit of inquiry as it helps the students 'tune in' with the type of learning that will be taking place. I wonder if we could try harder to revisit these sorts of connections more periodically throughout each unit though. This may help to re-focus the students and help them reflect on their learning. There is, however, a level of caution to be considered here as we don't want to over-guide the inquiry and the students do need to have the opportunity to explore their own learning independently.

Inquiry is conceptual: This principle refers to the ability of teachers to place the major emphasis of their teaching on the big ideas that lie behind topics. This will in turn lead to deeper understandings that are transferrable across different contexts. This type of learning is more important now that ever before. The world has moved from an 'Information Age' that relied on knowledge workers and analytical thinkers, to a 'Conceptual Age' that asks for the ability to think collaboratively and combine creative thinking with analysis. The PYP has five essential elements, one of which are the key concepts. All of our units of inquiry are based around these and their associated concepts so we are driving conceptual learning from the start. In this sense, I feel that we do a good job. The challenge that sometimes arises is maintaining this conceptual learning. Sometimes we get caught up with focussing on an interesting topic, theme or activity that may have a conceptual link, but is still being explored in a more factual way.

Inquiry is problem-posing and problem-solving: Problem solving in a typical inquiry situation often looks like students engaging in a designed task, being encouraged to ask questions about that problem and to research those questions. Problem-posing develops once a person has acquired a wealth of knowledge about a topic or issue. Time needs to be spent exploring and immersing students in these and eventually tensions will arise that allow them to problem-pose. I think a lot of the time I consider the questions that my students ask during problem-solving engagements as problem-posing questions when they're not. If I am the one setting the engagement then I am the problem-poser, not my students. They are simply asking questions (still a valuable skill - don't get me wrong!) about my problem. My realisation about this principle is that I have been focussing too much on guided inquiry. My goal is to make my units focus more on collaborative inquiry, where the students have greater freedom to pose and investigate problems that they find interesting within that unit.

Inquiry is collaborative: Collaboration differs from co-operation in that it is not just about working together, but also about thinking through dialogue about ideas. Effective learning occurs when participants work together towards understanding - they learn in an experience, not just from an experience. In other words, learners gain understanding by being part of something, not just learning about it. I think this element is the one that we are probably strongest at. Collaboration is high among the students in each class, between the classes in the grade and also with classes in other grades in the school. Additionally, we use technology to enhance the collaborative experience and allow the students to connect to minds in other parts of the world, of different ages and backgrounds. These collaborative experiences allow for effective inquiry learning to take place.

Overall, I think we do a pretty good job of fostering a positive inquiry-based learning approach in our grade. There are certainly things that we can improve on but we're on the right track. It will be interesting to discuss these elements in greater personal detail with my team members as we reflect on our current unit of inquiry.

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