Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Research -v- Inquiry

I've written about inquiry many times before, but one of the joys of facilitating online workshops is that I often have to think - and re-think - about curriculum and pedagogy over and over again depending on the workshop and the cohort of participants.  Over the last few days I've been reading Kathy Short's interview with Yvonne Siu-Runyan and considering inquiry as curriculum.

Inquiry is the basis of the PYP, and one of the 5 essential elements of the PYP is action.  Kathy explains how inquiry and action are linked.  She talks about how we come to ask questions - because something interests us or because something causes us tension or confusion.  As we try to answer these questions, we come to new understandings, but at the same time new questions emerge and, because we have found out the answers to our questions, we need to be able to apply this new information in our lives which leads to taking action as a result of our new understanding.  Of course the action may well lead to further questions.

The real difference with inquiry as an approach is that you must start with exploring first, before asking questions - it's not possible to ask questions or think critically about something that you know nothing about.  And it is for this reason that many PYP units start with frontloading and with students being totally immersed in the topic in order to build this background knowledge that will allow the asking of meaningful questions.  As Kathy says: "In inquiry, the focus is on exploring the topic from as many perspectives as possible before finding questions or issues for in-depth investigation."

Research is often about collecting facts, but inquiry goes further as students use these facts to ask questions that will deepen their understanding.  When students start to inquire, the teachers may not know which questions the students will ask or where these questions will take them - the students may even want to go further than the teacher's own knowledge on a topic which means that teachers will be learning alongside the students.  In this situation the role of the teacher is not to provide the answers, but to bring in ideas and perspectives that the students may not yet have considered but that will support the inquiry - and this role involves a huge amount of listening as the teacher needs to find out what the students already know so that he or she can provide different perspectives about what the students don't already know.

For this reason I'm always wary about planning out a unit of inquiry beforehand.  I think it's good to plan powerful provocations and then to sit back and listen to the students and evaluate what they are saying - to collect their questions and then to plan more learning engagements based on these.  I think the difference between researching a topic and inquiry is that in the latter situation it is the students who own the learning and who are digging into questions that are significant for them, and are showing their knowledge in different ways.  The way they present their understanding is something I want to think about a little more in an upcoming post.

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