One of the great things about maintaining the scholarly learning community as part of the Undergrads Engaging in Inquiry program this past year has been the opportunity to discuss ideas and thoughts with others. On a campus like Illinois, we typically have limited opportunities to discuss teaching and learning with our colleagues. The UEI discussions this past year provided a regular venue for those interactions. We hope to continue providing those opportunities for discussions this coming year, primarily through the program that Ann Abbott is developing.
Sometimes someone will say something or use a phrase that resonates with me and helps solidify or provide structure to my often poorly structured thoughts and ideas. In some of the discussions about inquiry and how we use it regularly in learning, Cheelan Bo-Linn used a phrase that caught my attention. She referred to inquiry as a “habit of mind.” I have come to view the inquiry process as the mechanism by which we gain new knowledge. As such, the inquiry process is a mental habit. It is a normal, natural approach that our brain uses to acquire new knowledge or understanding. We are always reaching for new knowledge based on our existing knowledge, linking the new with what is already known. We ask our most productive questions based on existing knowledge. We intuitively seek out information resources as part of our investigation. We create conclusions, or new ways of thinking about something, or reinforce our existing views. We discuss our new creation of ideas or understanding, at least with ourselves, and often with others, whether through dialogue (with friends and colleagues) or examinations (in a class), always seeking feedback on how our created understanding fits with how others perceive things. And of course, we reflect, consider, cogitate, and let it roll around among the grey cells. For better or worse, that inquiry cycle results in something new built on the foundation of our pre-existing knowledge. These are nature, intuitive habits of mind.
If these habits of mind are natural, then do we need to teach them to our students? Another phrase that Cheelan has used suggests that the components of the inquiry cycle reflect a “repertoire of cognitive skills.” In undergraduate education, we tend to emphasize the skills of investigation and perhaps some minimal level of creativity. The other components of the inquiry process are underrepresented in our typical teaching efforts. We rarely challenge students to ask questions based on their lived experiences. We don’t ask them to be creative too often, either. Usually we ask them to reiterate the creations of someone else, whether it be the expert in the content, the author of the text book, or ourselves as transmitters of that content. Getting students to have productive discussions, informed but independent thoughts, and meaningful reflections takes time, as well as well constructed and thoroughly planned activities, requiring a very different approach to teaching than that in which many are experienced. Furthermore, if we were to let our students reflect upon their knowledge and learning – well goodness, they might actually start thinking outside the narrowly defined box that we call course content.
What if we were able to more fully represent the inquiry process throughout a student’s undergraduate program? Any given class or instructor would not necessarily have to integrate all components of the inquiry process in every course. Giving focus to different steps in the inquiry process, or different cognitive skills, in various courses cumulatively gives the student experience with each of the skills. Then exposing students to organized activities that embrace the complete inquiry process through one or more cycles may be achieved through what are referred to as capstone experiences or courses, internships, international learning experiences, and other experiences that promote learning outside of the traditional classroom. Students currently take advantage of those types of experiences, but do they gain full learning value from their efforts when they enter the experiences with an under-developed repertoire of cognitive skills? Do they know how to take full advantage of those habits of mind that they use so often in their everyday lives?