Sunday, November 21, 2010

Curriculum as Inquiry - part 3

Some years ago I went to visit a school in South America that had the letters IBL on the schedule.  I asked what that was, and was told it stood for Inquiry Based Learning.  At the time I found it a bit odd to be scheduling inquiry like this as a separate subject almost.  Now I wish I'd asked some more questions about what they actually did during these lessons.

Kathy Short and Carolyn Burke remind us that inquiry is "a process of both problem posing and problem solving" that involves immersion in the topic and having the time to explore it, generate significant questions as a result of this exploration, and then investigating the questions.  Often in schools I have seen teachers start a new unit with a KWL chart - as if right at the beginning of the process students have some idea of what they want to investigate.  It seems to me that this approach will only lead to fact finding, not true inquiry.  As Kathy and Carolyn point out:
Inquiry is not just a matter of finding a problem, but of having time to find a problem significant for that learner.
Since finding the right question is probably much harder than finding the right answer, it will not occur right at the beginning of the inquiry cycle.  Of course as teachers we do ask questions at the start of the process - these are our tuning in questions and provocations aimed at getting the students immersed in the concepts - but the students' questions should come later.  These teachers' questions are also aimed at finding out what the students already know.  Kathy and Carolyn warn against a focus on skills, facts and concepts of particular disciplines, and instead promote looking at alternative perspectives and looking at the world through the different discipline lenses.

For me, another interesting idea was that students "come to new understandings that are temporary rather than final answers" - that the inquiry is lifelong and that the "questions continue to grow and deepen in complexity over time."  You can not be "done" with a conceptual understanding (for example how humans are competing for scarce resources) in the same way that you can be done with a topic (for example World War I).  In fact there are no final answers, just more complex questions.  These sorts of questions cannot be asked by students ahead of time, as a KWL chart implies.

Inquiry involves a major shift in thinking.  It means you are not building the curriculum upfront for the students, but that you are building the curriculum with the students.  For most of us, this is a hard shift to make.

Photo Credit:  Octagonal Star Twist by Eric Gjerde

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