I have had several people ask me over the past few months about the research data that demonstrates that inquiry-based learning is in fact effective. On a personal level this seems a ridiculous question. Much of anything that we learn, either individually or collaboratively, occurs because we are employing an inquiry process, although this often may be occurring automatically. That is my way of viewing inquiry. So the prospect that inquiry-based learning could be anything but effective does not enter into my thinking at all.
Nevertheless, it is appropriate to see where we are in terms of "sound data" supporting the value of inquiry learning. After hearing Peter Doolittle test the bogus-icity of several commonly held pedagogical principles, I challenged Judy with the task of seeing what research was available. I want to thank her for an excellent overview in the previous blog entry and in last week’s discussion of the inquiry learning community. Here are a few of my thoughts relative to her observations.
First, the point is made about developing an accepted definition of inquiry on campus. A precise definition of inquiry would lead to exclusivity, rigidity, and narrowness of how we think about inquiry, not to mention discussions of semantics. I am less concerned that we define inquiry than that we lend ourselves readily to engaging in the process and encourage our students to routinely engage.
Second, Judy makes an excellent point about gauging effectiveness of employing the inquiry process based on typical learning endpoints such as content mastery, or even longer-range impacts such as critical thinking abilities, etc. My approach at the moment is based on the notion that engaging my students in the inquiry process with respect to course content results in their personalizing their learning about content and models the process for them to address challenges to their future thinking. I have come to think about the desired outcome of learning by my students not in the context of how much they remember, or even how many bits of information they may “know,” but rather can they engage in an intelligent and insightful conversation with someone who is an expert in the field. Can the student, even in the position of being a novice in a field (which most still are when they graduate), challenge an expert to reexamine the expert's own knowledge or reconsider their own perspectives of their expertise? That is a very different relationship than the typical authoritarian one between teacher and student. It is the difference between "I am teacher, therefore I know more than you the student," vs "Let's share our knowledge, understanding, and perspectives, as well as our ignorance, and all learn from that collaboration."
A third point that Judy makes is relative to the research that has been done on inquiry learning, specifically that “… a good deal of the research on Inquiry Learning is qualitative. In many cases those studies raise more questions than they provide answers.” Hmmm, that sounds familiar. It sounds exactly like the outcome of engaging in the cyclic nature of the inquiry process. The question is, why don’t we have better answers to those second and third generation questions?
Finally, Judy observes that “Successful use of the Inquiry Learning Process requires the instructor to use judgment, be reflective and responsive, balance classroom components effectively, and many other things that constitute being a good teacher. Oddly enough it seems to require the same things of students.” From my perspective, it is the very responses of my students to the challenges of engaging in the inquiry process, both the successes and failures, which have enhanced my own reflection about teaching and learning and affected everything that I try to do in any interaction with students. Again, I get back to the notion that my active role in engaging my students in inquiry results in me being a part of their inquiry process, and therefore collectively, collaboratively, we are all enjoying the fruits of learning through inquiry, even if we are learning different things.
Again, thanks to Judy for summarizing some of the literature in this area.