Commentary: Inquiry-based Learning and Teaching, pp. 5 of 7

Taken together, these studies reveal teachers who are effectively using a range of strategies to guide students in IBL processes through questioning strategies, using effective scaffolding as needed to support and guide student learning, and encouraging students to consider different viewpoints and to take initiative and self-direct their learning in a supportive, caring learning environment. While the teacher role is active and provides necessary support and guidance, the focus is on students taking centre-stage in their learning, prompted by good questions, rich and authentic information sources, consideration of different perspectives, and constant encouragement to develop their own conclusions and findings.

Dewey (1910) reminds us that making meaning through inquiry is a process of ongoing reflection. Reflection, like other social practices, is learned as a social process modelled and guided by those who are close to us, such as family members and our teachers. These expert others help us reflect on or think about our experiences, what we encounter in the form of problems, information sources, stories or issues, and through this process help us develop understandings about the world, others and ourselves. The approaches outlined above suggest the kinds of methods that teachers and students can engage with in this endeavour.

Why is IBL so challenging? How might these challenges be managed?

If inquiry is such a natural process, fundamental to human life, something that everyone does to a certain extent to understand and address problems, and considered the gold standard in curriculum and pedagogy, why then is it so difficult to enact in school settings? In Singapore, while the inquiry approach has been a feature of curriculum since the early 2010’s, with a great deal of teacher education and professional development marshalled to prepare teachers to use inquiry approaches in their instruction, there is some evidence that the use of IBL remains uneven (Kwek, et al., 2019). Why is this the case? Why is inquiry pedagogy so challenging? How might these challenges be managed? How might inquiry be more fully enacted in more classrooms?

First of all, inquiry-based teaching is challenging. It is not simply a matter of technique or teaching strategies. Unfortunately, there is no formula for effective inquiry teaching. But let us return to this after considering some of the reasons why inquiry is so difficult. There are several factors identified by teachers that Kwek, et al (2019) suggest constrain the implementation of inquiry in classrooms. These include time constraints (inquiry requires ample planning time among teachers and time for students to explore, investigate and discuss problems, etc.), deficit views of students (as not able to engage in inquiry due to knowledge or skills deficits), large class sizes (which makes fieldwork investigations difficult to manage, for example), and the emphasis on exam preparation. In some cases, teachers saw inquiry as a form of skills-based work that could help students prepare for exams, but Kwek, et al (2019) found that this reduced the intent and potential of IBL into procedural steps and skills that had to be learned. These findings are consistent with international literature, which is aptly summarised by Barton and Levstik (2003) that “in study after study, what teachers know has little impact on what they do” (p. 37). Instead, while teachers may believe in the value of IBL, their efforts to implement it in classrooms comes into conflict with other priorities that exist in schools, such as managing classrooms, covering content and exam preparation. As Dewey (1916) noted over a century ago, education systems serve many other purposes, such as socialising students into the norms and values of society, the meritocratic sorting of students and preparing students for work, which may restrict and constrain the full potential of inquiry as an educative process.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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