Commentary: Inquiry-based Learning and Teaching, pp. 6 of 7

How then, might the tensions that arise between IBL and competing educational purposes and priorities be managed? First of all, these tensions and the ways they can be managed can be made an explicit focus of teacher learning at all levels. In other words, managing these tensions requires ongoing, continual inquiry by teachers to explore what works, what problems and questions invite more authentic forms of inquiry, what forms of scaffolding and guidance work, and having opportunities to share among teachers the different insights and practices that contribute to effective IBL. Kwek, et al (2019) found that there were particular teacher beliefs that facilitate the implementation of IBL in classrooms. These included teachers having a strong belief in and commitment to the inquiry process and the purposes of IBL, and that teachers’ dispositions mattered a great deal. They pointed to the need for teachers to be open-minded to trying out new practices and ideas, being adaptable and flexible in their approach to classroom practice, and having high expectations for their students’ capacities and readiness for inquiry. They also noted that school structures that provided support for teacher inquiry were key. Like their students, teachers need to have adequate time to delve into problems of practice and opportunities to engage in reflection, sense-making and problem-solving collaboratively.

How can we move IBL forward?

This brings us to the paradox of doing inquiry in classrooms. If we return to our definition of inquiry as the methodical building of evidence-based claims, this suggests there are particular methods that enable us to build knowledge or learn. There are – we see these used in the disciplines – and this article has suggested these methods can be used in some authentic and age-appropriate ways to support IBL. However, method should not be confused with technique or simply reduced to teaching strategy. This is because doing inquiry well in classrooms depends on a number of things – the students, the curriculum, the problem or issue being investigated, the context – and thus requires judgment and choice. Judgment cannot be simply reduced to a set of rules or techniques (Flyvbjerg, 2001).

Instead, inquiry might be better understood as a set of commitments, values, dispositions, aspirations or practices that effective inquiry educators develop over time. Murdoch (2015) has identified a set of effective inquiry practices teachers are observed “doing” in their classrooms. These include:

  • Creating flexible, open and equitable classrooms where students have choice;
  • Linking learning to authentic contexts, problems and intellectual work;
  • Using a range of questions to prompt thinking, especially open-ended questions;
  • Stimulating student curiosity and encouraging student questioning;
  • Supporting students to figure things out for themselves;
  • Giving students opportunities to research to understand and address problems;
  • Using scaffolds and routines that support a range of thinking processes;
  • Being open to exploration, unexpected turns and different pathways in reasoning;
  • Limiting whole class instruction (and teacher talk), and encouraging students to take initiative, to talk and share their thinking;
  • Building reflective thinking into daily routines; and
  • Being inquirers themselves into students’ lives, experience and interests, into content and into pedagogy.

Rather than particular techniques or strategies, these are manifest as social practices (things we see inquiry teachers do) that are developed through persistent effort over time. To develop these classroom practices requires believing that change is possible, identifying existing routines that inhibit inquiry as well as those that might be more satisfying and productive (such as those listed above), and working collaboratively and collegially to adopt and utilise these new routines in classroom practice. If we consider these as social practices, we recognise that we need to help each other make these changes.

To conclude, effective IBL is less about better teaching techniques than it is about necessary commitments and support to develop particular practices among students and teachers. It requires reconceptualising what it means to teach and learn and the creation of a system-wide culture of inquiry focused on authentic and meaningful problems (Costes-Onishi, et al, in press).

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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