Based on ideas about thinking, teaching, and learning articulated more than a century ago by philosopher John Dewey, inquiry curriculum is grounded in students' natural curiosity about the real world and how it works. Beginning with their questions about a problem or subject, inquiry guides students through a cycle of investigation, discussion, presentation, and reflection. In a sense, the method formalizes in the classroom the process a learner of any age would naturally go through in exploring a complex issue, problem, or question.
In Beyond Reading and Writing: Inquiry, Curriculum, and Multiple Ways of Knowing, educator Jerome Harste provides this explanation of inquiry-based learning:
Inquiry, like literacy and curriculum, has multifaceted meaning. On one level, inquiry means learning driven by a learner's personal question or questions. There are always questions. Our lives are full of ambiguity, and we have to continually ask, 'what does this mean?' Our questions originate from what we already know, and we pursue them by making predictions, examining assumptions, gathering more information, and seeking alternative perspectives and new possibilities. In essence, inquiry is learning.Used across the curriculum and among various age levels, inquiry looks different in different classrooms and contexts. An inquiry in elementary science that begins with the question "Why do some things float and others sink?" will be conducted in an entirely different way than a high school social studies inquiry that takes on the issue of civil rights in a post-9/11 United States. However, all inquiry approaches encourage students to pursue information through investigation, experimentation, creation, reflection, and discussion and to use their outside knowledge and "real life" experiences in that pursuit. To that end, the teacher should act as facilitator for the process of individual learning and encourage students to make connections between their classroom inquiries and their personal lives.
Although inquiry has its own well-defined philosophy, it clearly shares key characteristics with other theories detailed in this series. Inquiry methods are deeply rooted in reader-response theory; they put great emphasis on a reader's initial reaction to a text and the personally meaningful questions that arise from that reaction. In the inquiry programs in this workshop series, for example, you will notice that teachers use the reader-response technique of having students select and react to quotes from a novel as a warm-up exercise before finding their own inquiry topics. Inquiry also shares a methodology with cultural studies in that both involve intertextual readings and the study of multiple genres. But inquiry is more explicitly student-centered than cultural studies because the entire process runs on the "engine" of student questions and their work to find answers to those questions. Finally, inquiry shares a great deal philosophically with critical pedagogy in that both theories hold that education should be emancipatory; they give students the tools to question the relationship between knowledge, power, and authority and seek to empower students to use what they have learned to right social injustice.
All inquiry methods are based on a common belief: At this moment in history, when there is an unprecedented flow of information, an educated person is not a person who knows a large number of facts, but a person who knows how to understand and use facts in larger contexts. By teaching students how to use information, inquiry methods teach them how to learn.
Impact on teaching literature
An inquiry approach supports students in making their own meaning from texts. By giving students a structure -- whether it's a Socratic seminar, problem-based learning instruction, I-search, or any other type of inquiry method through which to question, discuss, refine, and reflect -- the inquiry approach provides students with the freedom to explore their own questions, and the tools with which to do it. A literature teacher might pose questions like "What is a hero?" or "To what extent is equality among human beings possible?" Through collaboration, discussion, and interaction with a series of texts that speak to the question, coupled with collective reflection, students and their teacher together can begin to pose possible answers.
Incorporating inquiry in the classroom
An inquiry classroom is an active, engaged, sometimes "messy" classroom. Students might all be involved in an inquiry project on the same theme, with each student busily exploring his or her own question about that theme. Or, as with educator Ken Macrorie's I-Search method, each student might simply pursue his or her own individual project, documenting the "story of the search" on a topic as it happens. Using another kind of inquiry method, the Socratic seminar, the whole class might discuss a question or text together, led either by the teacher or by a student, within a formal structure for questioning, talking, and reflecting.
Regardless of which inquiry method is used, students go through a similar process. First, they must identify and focus on some problem to be solved or question to be answered. Then they begin to investigate by reading, experimenting, observing, interviewing, gathering resources, and otherwise steeping themselves in the subject. As the original question or problem is refined and explored, individual students begin to shape their ideas through discussion with others. After sharing knowledge by comparing information, debating conclusions, and brainstorming solutions, students may sum up what they have learned in a written, spoken, or visual presentation. Woven into this whole process is the work of reflection -- of constantly honing the question and observing one's own process toward finding an answer.
Educator Jerome Harste has identified the four crucial elements of any inquiry curriculum:
Benefits and challenges of using an inquiry approach
An inquiry approach recognizes the diverse needs of different students and the importance of keeping individual students engaged. Because it is rooted in the questions students raise about an issue or text, it encourages them to actively engage in constructing new knowledge. It also builds a community of learners through the process of working collaboratively toward answers or solutions alongside one's peers and teachers. It connects learning to the world outside the classroom, honoring both individual points of view and the rich work that can arise from peer collaboration.
Note: Because inquiry is more a process than a discrete set of strategies, the various topics in the Teaching Strategies section should be read as a sequence. Any teacher wishing to structure an inquiry will want to include each of the elements described.
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