Having taught in 3 PYP schools, I can truly say that inquiry poses a challenge to many teachers. This year we have gone through a self-study at school, and my group was looking at teaching and learning. We had several interesting discussions about what inquiry is, and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn't. We decided that it isn't fact finding or research, both of which tend to be topic-based and teacher-directed. The whole idea of inquiry is to go beyond the information and to ask questions: why? and perhaps so what? in order for students to gain a deep understanding of the concept. Understanding a concept will allow students to transfer what they know to new situations - ones that will be critical, perhaps, to their future. Just knowing the facts probably won't allow this transfer.
What I have never been able to get straight in my mind before today was the different sorts of inquiry: guided, personal and collaborative. Kathy explains these as follows:
Personal inquiry involves the learner as both the problem-poser and problem-solver in pursuing personal interests and tensions that may never be the focus of the school curriculum ..... Collaborative inquiries, where teachers and students collaborate on problem-posing and problem-solving through a process of negotiation within the curriculum are at the heart of units of inquiry .... teachers negotiate the curriculum with students, not just build curriculum from students, so that investigations grow out of process ..... Guided inquiry, where the teacher is the problem-poser and the students are problem-solvers, is often found in skill instruction.Looking at inquiry this way, it seems that much of what is currently done during the units of inquiry is guided inquiry and that the students themselves never really become the ones posing the problems, and often guided inquiry becomes just another word for research or fact finding. What should be happening is that the units are collaborative inquiries.
One of the big discussions I have had with teachers recently is that with 4 or 5 classes in the same grade all engaged in inquiry, the form the inquiry takes in each class should look different, as each class should be focused on the inquiries that are driven by the students' interests and questions. What I am seeing, on the other hand, is that some teachers want the classes to all be doing pretty much the same things. If this is the case, it is clear that the inquiries are teacher-guided rather than collaborative inquiries. Going even further, within each of the classes the inquiries should be looking different too - with students pursuing their own questions and deciding how best to show their understanding.
As an IT teacher I'm often involved in the students creating something on the computer to show their learning. Most of the time, up to now, this has involved all the students creating a similar product - a web site, a VoiceThread, an online book and so on - with very little choice given to the students about how they want to show their understandings. Recently, for the first time at my current school, we did give the 4th grade students a choice as to how they showed their understanding about different belief systems. Some chose to use VoiceThread, some chose to write and perform a play or skit, some chose to interview people and write up their responses. An example of what one class did can be found here. I felt pleased that the summative assessment, in this case, was one that was student-driven rather than another guided inquiry.
I have asked myself several times this year why it is that so much inquiry that goes on is indentical both within a class and between the classes in a grade level, and the conclusion I have come to is that it is probably because the central ideas are fairly limited and do not lead to the students having ownership of the direction they want the learning to take. Last year at my old school we looked at every single central idea and rewrote them all to encourage deeper understandings - the hows? whys? and so whats? I'm thinking that here we will need to do the same thing at some stage, and at the same time we will need to have more professional development so that teachers have a greater understanding of just what inquiry really involves.
Photo Credit: Goodbye by woodleywonderworks