EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Necessary Disruption (Part 5: Inquiry-Based Learning)

In order to keep pace with the rapid, pervasive social and technological change all around them, schools need to modernize their curriculum, instruction and assessment practices while preserving the supportive relationships that will continue to be an essential foundation for student success.  In the last post I suggested the creation of 20% “white space” in the curriculum to create time for learning in depth.  In this post I will look at how instruction must change to exploit this potential and in my next post I will turn my attention to assessment.

Traditional instruction is primarily telling and demonstrating.  We don’t like to say it quite so bluntly, but the truth is that most time in most classrooms is taken up by some form of reading, lecture or video followed by guided practice or a lab exercise in class with independent practice later at home.  Now there is nothing wrong with this approach at some times for some things.  In fact, a skillful lecture can be both instructive and inspiring, and when augmented by strategies such as those that Barry Bennett describes in Beyond Monet (e.g., academic controversy, mind mapping) direct instruction often leads to success on tests and the various rewards that ensue for students and teachers.  Moreover, students are used to this familiar pattern so they know how to get on with it and parents tend to recognize and trust it.

There are, however, two problems with this style of instruction.  First, student engagement, and thus learning, tends to be confined to the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.  Second, the soft skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity (aka 21st Century Skills) that are necessary to apply academic learning in real world contexts are addressed only tangentially, if at all.  Additionally, some students do not find this style supportive and experience frustration or failure because of the mismatch with their learning strengths.  Many more who are reasonably successful in academic terms are really only surviving and not truly thriving as we would like.  The increased demands of modern life for creative knowledge workers and critically competent citizens requires that schools do better for students.

Increasing student engagement, deepening learning in content areas and broadening outcomes to include 21st Century Skills that transcend subject boundaries requires not merely refinements to traditional practice, but distinctly new practices – disruptive rather than incremental change, if you will.  Traditional practices of direct instruction need not be abandoned, however.  They will always have their place in the pedagogical repertoire, but they should be used selectively from amongst a broader pallet that includes critical, creative and collaborative inquiry.

Inquiry requires questions – real questions – that are developmentally appropriate, related to the learning outcomes that the curriculum intends and both interesting and important within the student’s frame of reference.  Framing these questions in partnership with students and scaffolding the inquiry that results so as to place students in their zone of proximal development is an essential pedagogical skill for 21st Century Learning.  The approach is often termed “problem based learning” or “project based learning,” without any significant distinction as far as I can tell.  Personally, I prefer the former description of PBL because it emphasizes the grounding in real questions.  (Note that PBL not the same as ‘discovery learning,’ which is concerned with the initial development of understanding rather than deepening it through application.)

The questions that students explore should provide an opportunity for them to use what they have learned previously and augment that with new public knowledge to which they have access and which they are developmentally able to understand.  This knowledge building exercise should be conducted in groups, which provides the benefits of complementary abilities and potential synergy as well as the opportunity to develop communication and collaboration skills.  Because students must identify relevant and reliable information, which they then use to create a response or solution, PBL requires both creative and critical thinking.  Finally, the project should result in an actual application of the solution developed to evaluate its effectiveness and/or presentation of group results to an authentic audience that can validate the work and provide useful feedback.  

As important and powerful as such projects are, they cannot constitute the entire curriculum.  There are some things best learned through direct instruction.  However, the knowledge acquisition and skill development that students continue to require is lent greater authenticity and significance when it is understood by students to be a useful part of a larger inquiry that requires such knowledge and skill.

It is fashionable to suggest that the use of technology itself will deepen engagement and thus understanding.  I do not believe that to be an automatic result, at least not beyond a short-lived Hawthorne effect.  The key to engagement is that students find the content interesting and important enough to warrant their time and energy.  The modern world is infused with technology and that technology is reshaping the way things are done in all aspects of life, so schools should also exploit its potential, but technology itself is only a vehicle.  It offers many exciting possibilities and innovative educators are demonstrating the potential of a technology-infused pedagogy in often dramatic ways, but technology grafted onto weak pedagogy will not result in improved learning and teaching.  High Tech High, for example, has made a name for itself as an exemplar of 21st Century Learning and makes extensive use of technology, but its design principles are focussed on learning, not the technology used to support it (see http://thurly.net/).

More inquiry-based learning that extends and deepens learning through knowledge building and public application/presentation is essential to 21st Century Learning.  This is hardly a new idea – in fact, it sounds a lot like something Dewey might say – and it is far from unknown in schools already, but it has to move from familiar theory that is occasionally enacted, perhaps with an enriched class, to a central premise and practice in all schools and for all students.  Our ability to do so can be greatly enhanced by infusing inquiry-based pedagogy with the technological tools that are endemic in the world outside of school, but the heart of the issue for 21st Century Learning is not merely using technology but regularly engaging students with questions they can explore rather than only answers we want them to absorb.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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