Friday, April 18, 2014

Why inquiry?

Part of the learning process is something that is referred to as internalisation. This occurs when individual thinking transfers from an external social plane to become part of a person's mental function. Ratner states that these functions are formed as 'individuals engage in practical social activities and can then be applied in different contexts'. A simple example if this is addition. As someone internalises each of the different processes of addition then they can use these in a variety of contexts (e.g. adding decimals when using money, weight and length).

Simon Davidson says that in any high quality teaching approach students should leave with skills, knowledge and conceptual understandings. These can be achieved in most approaches to teaching. Students will be able to read, write and add. They will be able to use maps, glossaries, rulers. They will have a knowledge of social studies and science. To many people this is enough - 'as long as my child can do these things then I don't care how they learn it'. It is also what many people have experienced from their own education, which is why some people - most typically parents - question approaches such as inquiry learning. Its probably inaccurate to say that they don't support this approach or that they're anti-inquiry (well, maybe some are), more that they've got little experience with this way of teaching and are eager to make sure that they're children are taken care of. A lot of the time inquiry is a messy process and there aren't specific tests that can measure results and show parents how much their child has learned that day. This can worry parents and might lead them to request for a 'back-to-basics' approach (more about this later). Ultimately though, they are simply concerned for the well-being of their children.

The big differences between beliefs about learning reveal themselves when we compare models of teaching. Two of the most common found in schools around the world are the aforementioned inquiry and didactic. Inquiry is underpinned by a constructivist theory of learning, where understanding is crafted by each individual learner, usually in a social context. A didactic approach is typified by a stimulus-response way of learning that is initiated by the teacher (i.e. teacher says, student does). It is important to note that both have benefits.

When we focus on the initial topic of this post - internalisation - the importance of an inquiry approach is unveiled. As I mentioned before, if either of the two approaches - inquiry or didactic - are well executed then the results for the students can be positive. However, inquiry learning offers something to support internalisation that a didactic approach doesn't - a social plane. I'd like to try and use a sporting example as a metaphor here - team sports to be more specific.

A sportsman or woman trains hard to learn the skills of their game. They can become experts in kicking, passing, shooting, running, blocking, tackling, whatever is required of them to participate effectively. They can also learn the rules that define their sport plus the strategies that their team hopes will help them achieve their goal. However, none of these play out perfectly to plan once a competition starts and there is an element of social interaction. Social engagement brings new perspectives, different challenges and fresh ideas. Suddenly they cannot pass the ball to a specific position like they did in the training drill because there is a defender standing in their way. They have to re-evaluate and make a different decision. The effectiveness of their choice will be reflected in how much they have practiced the skills, how well they know the game and their level of understanding about how the strategy connects to the bigger picture. They can have a solid grasp of the skills, knowledge and understandings, but if they don't know how to apply these in a social setting then they're not of much use to anyone. The same applies to something concrete in schools around the world: reading. Through the internalisation of the processes involved with learning how to read, one not only acquires the skills of reading, they also become part of a community of readers & interact around books.

A more didactic approach to learning is sometimes requested by parents if they feel that inquiry isn't meeting the needs of their children. As Bambi Betts says, 'everyone is an expert in education because they had one once… unlike technology, or medicine, or telecommunications, parents have been to school.  They have been primary ‘users’ of the place called school and the thinking goes… ‘I turned out pretty much ok, didn’t I’ (they think) – so just keep doing what you did when I was in school.’   Familiarity as a design principle for schooling actually breeds complacency'.  The challenge when following a solely didactic approach is that if something is learned by rote, then there is no exploration of the association or relationships that is shares with other concepts. The result of this is a poor level of understanding and that it is difficult to remember. That's not to say that there are never any moments where direct instruction might be beneficial for a student. But educators should be mindful of how their beliefs about education are being put into practice.

Humans are not independent and autonomous. We do not live in separate spaces all of the time or experience the world in separate subjects. We live and work with each other & use our learning as part of a community. Didactic teaching separates social organisation and content. It diminishes context, which has implications for understanding. Inquiry learning creates a community of learners dedicated to understanding, not just following a curriculum. This is a vital part of learning for our students as they grow into the world.

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