It’s fitting that my first blog on this new site is about inquiry-based learning. I’ve worked with schools and sectors for a long time—as a university-based colleague and as an independent consultant (that’s me now!)—on many aspects associated with enhancing learning in the classroom. My focus has been on working with teachers and schools (and other organisations) to design:

  • engaging and relevant curriculum (drawing on what’s required of course!);
  • innovative and democratic pedagogies (using research-based frameworks!); and
  • credible, rigorous, real-life and user-friendly assessment.

And, of course, ensuring that these three elements are aligned—a sure fire way to boost engagement, learning and achievement!

At the heart of this work around curriculum, assessment and pedagogy has been a commitment to inquiry-based learning. Why wouldn’t there be!

Why IBL?

Young people want to learn about phenomena/issues/events that are interesting and meaningful to them. And I agree with Mr Beane (James Beane, that is, 1995), we should design learning for young people that is both personally and socially meaningful. We look to the mandated or Australian Curriculum—in the case of Foundation (Prep in Queensland) to Year 10—to find the spaces to explore phenomena/issues/events that are meaningful for our learners and for society.

If we start with our lens as teachers who are ‘in the world’ and aware of its big questions (global warming, genetic engineering, war and famine, global movements of people… and the list goes on), this supports us to design curriculum at the local level with learning contexts (i.e. topics and roles for learners) that suit the learners in our classroom. A learning disposition for now and for the future must be about scaffolding our learners’ inquiry into things that matter.

Why would we just tell kids stuff? Why would we take up a ‘teaching as telling’ approach in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we work like scientists, historians or geographers in our classrooms, when we can? Why wouldn’t we strive to understand ourselves and others through our study of English? It seems to me that this is an ongoing human project of inquiry. Don’t great mathematicians want to inquire into things that matter to them? Isn’t that what maths is about? I think these questions remind us to read the rationale and aims of the learning areas/subjects (at www.australiancurriculum.edu.au) and to think about why we teach what we teach.

Some educators appear to be apprehensive—or even fearful—when they hear the term, ‘inquiry-based learning’. Sometimes I think that those sceptical of this approach assume that the teacher is abandoning their responsibilities as the leader of learning in the classroom.

This is definitely not the case! In fact, it’s quite the reverse! Teachers are taking their students’ learning very seriously.

So what is IBL?

Two facets of inquiry-based learning (IBL) are important here. Firstly, IBL refers to a pedagogical approach which is based on the belief that powerful student learning occurs when learners make meaning for themselves. This meaning making occurs when learners investigate phenomena/issues/events through pursuing questions that are personally relevant and important to them. The subject of investigation also needs to be meaningful to society—this meaning comes from the understandings and skills that comprise the Australian Curriculum. As a result, IBL as a pedagogical approach is about real-world learning and is often associated with learners taking some sort of action.

The second—and related—facet of IBL is its focus on investigative skills. Such skills are more explicit in some Australian Curriculum learning areas than in others. Geography, History and Science each has a strand that privileges questioning, finding answers, analysing and evaluating findings as well as communicating what has been found.

The image featured with this post was created, based on Jenny’s definition of IBL, using tools available at http://www.wordle.net (retrieved 31 January, 2010).

The argument here is that IBL, as a pedagogical approach, serves all areas of the Australian Curriculum. For its specific focus on investigative skills it is especially relevant to those learning areas/subjects with inquiry-based strands.

Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues (2008) present a range of evidence to indicate that learners engaging in ‘project-based’, ‘problem-based’ or ‘design-based’ learning—all forms of IBL—achieve higher levels of thinking than do those exposed to a ‘teaching-as-telling’ approach. Their book, Powerful learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (John Wiley & Sons), is a very useful resource for teachers.

Direct teaching is important too!

IBL, as a pedagogical approach advocated here, is a form of structured teaching. The teacher must lead, monitor and review learning at every step of the way. Darling-Hammond et al. also point out that IBL can fail without appropriate and adequate scaffolding by teachers. The IBL approach advocated here must be used alongside:

  • direct teaching
  • other forms of indirect teaching such as interactive approaches and experiential learning.

Direct teaching in which the understandings and skills are explicitly explored is part of the learner entitlement. Experiential teaching supports learners to experience the phenomenon about which they are learning. This might include voting in a Civics and Citizenship class or creating substances in a Science lesson. Interaction in the classroom supports learners to learn from each other. IBL, interactive and experiential approaches require teacher commentary or exposition to clarify, extend and reinforce.

Teaching as telling—that is direct teaching 100% of the time—is not an appropriate pedagogical approach for the 21st century. If we want to support our students to be ‘successful learners’, ‘confident and creative individuals’ and ‘active and informed citizens’*, pedagogies of inquiry would seem to be essential. BTW, some people feel more comfortable with the term, ‘guided inquiry’.

What’s your view about inquiry-based learning? Food for thought and action?

* Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, 2008.

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