Shifting toward using inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning can be a big challenge for a teacher.
The challenge seems to stem partly from the patterns of thinking that inquiry approaches require from the classroom. Deductive patterns of thinking most commonly used in traditional, test-driven systems are often barriers to being able to implement an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.
In deductive approaches, teaching and learning moves from large topics to smaller sets of facts. The movement of thinking in deductive patterns follows what has traditionally been the structure of a scope and sequence. For instance, in content-based curriculum, a syllabus might consist of large topics broken down into sub-topics, and finally unpacked in a series of facts. We see an example of this type of deductive pattern in the illustration below.
The pressure of coverage (usually to prepare for a high-stakes test) fuels the drive to teach deductively, usually through direct instruction strategies such as lecture, a strategy used to transmit a lot of information in as short a time as possible.
Deductive patterns of teaching and learning are useful in a few instances, but overused can lead to what Edna Sackson at whatedsaid calls “the great divide,” when all of a sudden, the volume of fact learning and drills, piles of worksheets become the norm as a child moves toward a high-stakes test-driven secondary school culture. If this situation is different from the inquiry based primary experience, the child experiences “the great divide.”
Let’s take a look at an example. Say the teacher aims for students to appreciate the craftsmanship of poetry. Some author’s decisions in writing poetry focus on language, imagery, beginnings and endings, structure. If a teacher thinks to teach these craft lessons deductively, the lessons might consist of the teacher demonstrating how different poems achieve beautiful language, imagery, etc.
The teacher might just tell the students about the craft of poetry.
If we turn deductive thinking on its head, we get inductive thinking – the movement of thinking from specific ideas to generalizations. It is similar to scientific research, in that scientists investigate sets of data and find patterns among these to arrive at generalizations, large ideas which organize the data and answer questions within the discipline.
If we give students a set of poems, and ask them to find patterns, students might just become more engaged in the study of poetry. They might read the poems closely. They might have dialogs with peers about how the poet achieves meaning through what they did as they crafted the poems. Students might discover that poets make very specific decisions about the language they use in such an economic genre. Students might find out devices common to some poetry, which allow the poet to conjure images in the reader’s mind, taking the reader on the author’s personal intention within a poem. Students might also notice and come to conclusions about structure and its significance in a poem.
Along the way, the teacher might teach students to form good questions and how to be precise in their language as they question and express what they learn. Along the way, students might learn to negotiate meaning through collaborative dialog with peers. They might learn specific skills such as annotating text, metacognitive thinking, and synthesizing what they learn into coherent and well-supported responses to literature.
Students just might learn to use skills necessary for them to perform well in say, a literature examination.
The challenge to teach using inquiry-based approaches is a tough shift, but the toughest shift is in the teacher’s mind.
If we want our students to be self-directed learners who can solve problems for which there are no readily apparent answers, why not give them these opportunities, every day, through our lesson design?