Is ‘Inquiry-Based Learning’ too Narrowly Defined?

Last week while scanning Twitter for ideas, a chat was going on that caught my interest: #inquirychat. Seeing the host and participants were speaking with experience and authority on the subject, I jumped in. The initial questions were on the successes and failures of implementing ‘inquiry’ into the classroom. My first question to the forum might seem silly to some of you reading this post, in essence, ‘what do we mean by inquiry in the classroom’?

‘Inquiry-Based Learning’ is a recognised foundation for the IB / MYP, and from the discussions seen on Twitter and elsewhere, the trend is universal. Inquiry-based learning as it is widely understood today involves the following aspects: 

  • The use of open learning, where there is no prescribed target or result.
  • A focus on process, rather than, or in addition to the final product.
  • A focus on questions generated from the students own interests.
  • Student- centred and teacher guided.
  • Focus on real-world applications.
  • A constructivist approach to learning where students have ownership of the learning.
  • Involves asking questions, gathering and analysing information, justifying conclusions, and taking action.

I’m familiar with this list, and I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the methods and learning outcomes inscribed within this approach. However, I’m also a literalist, and when I hear the term “inquiry-based learning,” and see it applied to discrete “projects” rather than a daily, ongoing routine of educating both the student and teacher, it appears to be missing an important, I’m tempted to say THE, point.

The point of inquiry, classically understood, is first and foremost a disposition, a way of existing in the world. It is about being non-dogmatic, which is to say open to new ways of knowing, IF these ways of knowing are supported with sufficient evidence and explanations. In this stance of provisional agnosticism, ‘inquiring’ or questioning is the natural means of engaging with the world around you. Inquiry understood in this way was illustrated most clearly in the dialogues of Socrates, who, through rigorous questioning, revealed how the concepts that structured Athenian society–justice, beauty, right and wrong– were shallowly understood. Fortunately, this way of being in the world still finds its exemplars, like Michael Sandel at Harvard. Have a look at the video below, to see ‘inquiry’ approached as a routine of education, rather than a discrete instance. (The video was shared by a participant of the #inquirychat):

If you liked this video, there’s lots more here. 

Inquiry-based learning has the potential for being a revolutionary force in education. But understood as a discrete opportunity afforded to kids at the end of a unit, to assess understanding or a certain set of skills, seems to me a half-measure. If inquiry is not a demonstrated spirit of educating, imbued with openness, uncertainty, curiosity, and the constant questioning that results from these attributes, then it seems a bit idealistic to expect students to generate these attributes ‘on cue,’ when a project appears on their unit planner. To make inquiry-based learning a reality in the deeper sense, the daily, existential sense, involves what I’m tempted to call a spiritual shift– a belief that a “teachers” own deepest assumptions might not be as iron-clad as they had hoped, (or required)– rather than a re-arrangement of one’s pedagogical tool-box. If a classroom can be permeated daily with this spirit of openness and friendly agnosticism, it seems students will be better prepared to question and explore come “project” time. Or does it?