Saturday, April 10, 2010

Inquiry as a Stance

This morning I saw a tweet from Jessica (@yourjoyismylow) where she said she is reading Taking the PYP Forward: The Future of the IB Primary Years Programme. Here is a link to the first part of the book on Google Books which has the first 30 pages or so of the book. Chapter 1 is by Kathy Short and deals with inquiry as a stance, and having read just this one chapter I am determined to buy the entire book.

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


  1. Maggie, thank you for mentioning this book. I read the first section on Google Books and I am left wanting more as well. I think this is one I need to add to my bookshelf.
    I think it is uncomfortable to have classrooms within the same school on completely different tracks based on the students inquiry. We need to let go of some control and take on this uncharted territory, allowing students to guide learning more. All 3 kinds of inquiry are important for a well rounded education.

  2. Hi Maggie! Good to see that you got inspired .... I love reading this bit, and I have been reading it quite a bit.

    One thing I notice in your post is related to a discussion I have recently been having... the learning a DISCIPLINE, learning ABOUT A DISCIPLINE and learning THROUGH A DISCIPLINE.
    Your post suggests that a lot of work in your class as an IT teacher revolves about the students showing their learning.
    In this discussion, we talked about art, drama, etc being used as vehicles to show understanding, but not to construct understanding. We took this further and asked ourselves why this is. Are we not experts enough?
    I know that IT, technology, information,literacy is often a vehicle/took to construct understanding ...but what made you say that in your post?

  3. Hi Jessica,
    I think the main difference between subjects like art, drama etc and IT is that IT is not really a subject/discipline but a tool. Right now I'm having a lot of talks about whether IT and Library should actually be fused into one department - currently they are seen as 2 separate areas - yet both are concerned with finding information, validating that information, using the information and creating to show understanding. What I have seen is that sometimes, because the IT is now on a flexible schedule and the library isn't, that teachers book to come to the IT rooms when it might be more suitable for them to go to the library to do the task. I'm happy to talk to students about things like searching, creative commons, bibliographies etc, but I feel at the moment there is too much overlap between what we are doing in library and IT and some confusion about our roles, and that is the result of library only having few collaborative planning sessions where we can sit down and talk about how both IT and library are supporting the units.
    We have recently had a lot of discussion about the inquiry process. IT can be used throughout the inquiry cycle: for tuning in, finding out, sorting out, going further, reflecting and so on. Currently I think we do use it in the tuning in and finding out (though here I'm still thinking there should be more input from the library), and often teachers want to use IT as part of the summative assessment.
    Does this answer your question?

  4. Hi Maggie
    I have the book in my bag and am looking forward to reading it! Thanks for the great article. We have often had the same discussions in our team meetings - I think we lean to teacher led inquiry as well! Thank you again!
    Have a great day / evening!
    Neil Ringrose

  5. I think Mrs. Tenkely is right: the uncomfortability caused by not being in control leads many teachers to offer 'guided' inquiry only. (I too am/was guilty of this!) I think this is partly to do with the nature of school curricula. If a school has skills-based curriculum, then the school (and teacher) must be in control of the learning to ensure that all the skills are addressed and mastered. If a school's curriculum is concept-based, then it doesn't matter what we focus our in-depth study on so long as we are addressing that concept. This will lend itself to more personal and collaborative inquiry by students.

  6. Hi Maggie

    Great post. At our school, we also wrestle a lot with what true inquiry looks like in the units.

    I think the teachers who really 'get' inquiry are willing to let go and have their kids go off in different directions, irrespective of what other classes at the level are doing.

    Layla, our PYP coordinator is always pushing the teachers to understand that the inquiries should end up looking different in each class. I'll send her the link to your post now... I'm positive she will comment!!)

  7. I really connected with the levels of inquiry Maggie. I have been exploring understanding the children's conversations as a springboard to real inquiry. so often what they say requires collabortive thinking to see what they might be thinking. This is like those rich maths assessments when you analyse their responses not for wrong or right but for what they tell you about the thinking.Jocelyn and I were reading a transcript of her student conversations and once we approached it from this perspective - it was so rich in possibility