Inquiry is the new “buzz” word in education. I don’t go to a single meeting where it isn’t mentioned. And I hear a lot of schools say, “We’re doing inquiry”. I think it is a little more complex than that and it may be worth thinking about.
Inquiry is not a thing we do. Inquiry is a way of engaging students (or engaging staff) in the learning process. Inquiry is a belief system that guides our teaching practice, that influences our planning and assessment, that provides our students with voice, and that promotes critical thinking. As we are changing our approach to student learning, we may feel more successful at using inquiry at some times than at others. We may, as we try new things, return to the relative “safety” of more traditional approaches at times. However, if we really want to take an inquiry-based approach to learning, we have to believe certain things about how people learn:
- We need to believe that given the right conditions and supports, great things are possible from all students. That doesn’t mean that the same great thing is possible for all students, but that we have high expectations for all.
- We need to believe that learning is a social process. It is important to learning that we think, talk, reflect, try things out, assess and try again.
- We need to believe that knowledge in a curriculum area builds upon itself and that everyone brings something to the table to begin with, it just may not be the same something. As we find out what students already know, we can help them to learn the next new things.
- We need to believe that students like to be challenged and that given the right circumstances, will meet that challenge.
- We need to believe that learning is about thinking not about knowing. The process of learning may be more important than the final product. We need to allow students the time and opportunities to think and process.
- We need to believe that it is our responsibility as teachers to differentiate our program to meet a wide variety of needs in order for students to meet the challenges we set.
As we delve into inquiry, small group instruction, workshop environments, and collaboration, we learn a lot about our students and ourselves as teachers. Since inquiry-based learning is a stance that we decide to take, it does begin to influence everything we do. And if we want our students to take risks with their learning, we do as well. In teaching, it would be nice just to get it “right”. Whew, done. But it doesn’t work that way. Learning and teaching are both growth processes. The best we can do is to continually reflect upon how our students are learning, and try something that we think might work even better. That is our inquiry. When we bring that risky, messy belief system to the classroom, our students begin to do inquiry as well.
Professional development isn’t about getting something right. It isn’t about “doing” a new practice. But it is about thinking about one’s practice in relationship to one’s students and trying something new that you think might work. Something that might reach students you haven’t been able to reach before. Something that might engage or ignite passion. When you try new things you will find that some work well, some need tweaking, and some you will never try again. But you should always try something new–no one will die and everyone will learn something.